The Indiana Pacers ended Thursday night pounding their chests and screaming in delight toward the sea of red, white and blue streaming for the Verizon Center exits.
Once the final buzzer sounded, and Indiana emerged with a 93-80 win over the Washington Wizards to close this Eastern Conference semifinal series, these Pacers then walked toward the visitor’s locker room at Verizon Center, turned on DJ Khaled’s “They Don’t Love You No More,” and screamed some more — or at least until a Pacers official made them turn it off.
“A lot of expletives,” center Roy Hibbert said of the scene.
It was a burden lifted after two tougher-than-expected series, and the accomplishment was not lost on team President Larry Bird or Coach Frank Vogel. Bird went around the room, shaking each player’s hand. Vogel then referenced the rumors of locker room drama, the peaks and valleys of the regular season and the team’s growing list of doubters during a postgame speech, if only to make one thing clear.
“This is where we wanted to be,” he said now that Indiana is back in the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight year hoping to dethrone the Miami Heat.
But in a regular season filled with ups followed by a near-collapse against No. 8 seed Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs, it was only fitting that Thursday night’s turning point hinged on Indiana’s response once the Wizards rallied to take a 74-73 lead in the fourth quarter.
Pacers forward Paul George summarized that response with one word: “David.”
Veteran David West, at 33 the elder statesman in Indiana’s locker room and the team’s oldest starter, conjured up a performance he won’t soon forget. He finished with a game-high 29 points and took a season-high 26 shots, telling his teammates “just come to me” early and often.
“This was our Game 7 even though we knew we had an extra one at home,” West said. “We couldn’t lose this game. I was just trying to keep guys confident. Ultimately, I wanted it to be on my shoulders. If we lost this game, I wanted it to be on me.”
So when the Wizards opened the third quarter with an 11-2 run, it was a West tip-in that restored Indiana’s lead to double digits. In the fourth quarter, after Bradley Beal’s three-pointer gave Washington the lead, West grabbed it right back by calmly swishing two of his signature mid-range jump shots — the second one coming over the outstretched arm of Nene — from the top of the key.
“The reactions of the Wizards, you could tell that that shot hurt,” George said. “That was a tough blow for them. They couldn’t get over that shot.”
Added Wizards Coach Randy Wittman: “Whenever they needed a momentum buster, he seemed to make a shot.”
Indiana entered Thursday night on the heels of a Game 5 performance that highlighted the roller-coaster nature of its playoff run. After winning three consecutive games, two of them in Washington, following a Game 1 defeat, the Pacers never seemed engaged during a blowout loss at home in Game 5.
Vogel called it “frustrating” and lamented that his team, however briefly, forgot just how good the Wizards can be when they hit outside shots, dominate the glass and get out in transition. But instead of a grueling practice Wednesday, Vogel “relied on the tape” during a longer-than-usual — and animated — film session.
He couldn’t have scripted the first half better, with an efficient offense forcing Washington to take the ball from out of bounds, walk it up the floor and settle for contested outside jumpers. Indiana at times appeared capable of pulling away from Washington like it did in Game 3 at Verizon Center.
But when the Pacers couldn’t, West wouldn’t let them wilt. And now, Indiana is back where it always planned to be when this season began almost seven months ago.
“This year we had a lot more naysayers and this, that and the other,” Hibbert said. “But we blocked all that out and just stuck together.”