ATLANTA — The Indiana Pacers aren’t finished yet. On the verge of completing an embarrassing freefall, the Pacers staved off elimination Thursday night with a 95-88 road victory over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series.
David West scored 24 points — including 12 in the fourth quarter — to help the Pacers overcome a late five-point deficit. Paul George also scored 24 points and Lance Stephenson contributed 21 as the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team evened the series and forced a decisive seventh game. The Pacers and Hawks will meet Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis for the right to face the Washington Wizards in the conference semifinals.
The Hawks are seeking to become only the sixth No. 8 seed — though the third in the past four seasons — to win an opening-round series. But after wasting an opportunity to get the job done on their home court, the Hawks must do it the hard way: in a Game 7 on the road.
In NBA playoff history, 114 series have been decided in Game 7s. The team playing on its home floor is 91-23 —a winning a percentage of almost 80 percent. The Hawks will also face a Pacers team that just may have gotten the break it needed to get its groove back. The Pacers’ leader definitely was in top form.
After the Hawks went ahead, 84-79, on Jeff Teague’s 17-foot jumper with 3 minutes 16 seconds to play, West took charge. He scored six of the Pacers’ next eight points, including a short jumper that gave them the lead for good, 87-85, with 46.5 seconds remaining.
“Down the stretch, I was talking to Paul [George], I said it has got to be him or me,” said West, who also collected 11 rebounds. “We wanted to extend our season. I thought, in terms of our team, we did a great job.”
Especially on defense. On Thursday, the Pacers were much better defensively than they had been, well, for most of the series — if not the past couple of months.
Even with another disappearing act from center Roy Hibbert (12 minutes, zero points, two rebounds, one block and four fouls), the Pacers displayed toughness and focus that was missing in their 107-97 loss in Game 5. A change in their philosophy seemed to help.
For the Pacers, it appeared to be business as usual early. The Hawks opened a 10-point first-quarter lead as Hibbert did his best to impersonate a statue on both ends of the court. Fortunately for the Pacers, Hibbert picked up two fouls in the game’s first seven minutes and headed to the bench.
Then, Coach Frank Vogel shuffled the deck. Relying on smaller lineups in an attempt to counter the Hawks’ superior quickness, the Pacers opened a nine-point lead, 57-48, in the third. The Pacers appeared poised to blow open the game when George headed to the bench with his fourth foul. From that point, the Hawks outscored the Pacers 19-7 to close the quarter.
Still, the adjustment in philosophy paid off. After making 15 of 27 three-pointers in Game 5, the Hawks missed 26 of 35 from behind the arc in the loss.
“Coach rolled the dice and made the right call,” West said. “Throughout the season, we were one of the best teams guarding the three. They were just too comfortable out there on that line. We made a more concerted effort to be in their face.
“They’ve got an advantage in terms of foot speed. We have to be honest about that. We had to have guys out on the floor who could get up and down the floor. . . .
“We had to have guys who could match their foot speed. Maybe they hadn’t played as much or had as much experience [as regular rotation players], but can match the foot speed and not put us at a disadvantage in transition.”
It would seem that lineup experimentation isn’t ideal entering a Game 7. And in the series, the Hawks already have won twice on the Pacers’ floor.
By winning the opener at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Hawks served notice the Pacers were in for a fight. On Thursday, Pacers guard George Hill and Hawks forward Mike Scott mixed it up in the first half. So they’ll be a lot going on in the backdrop as the series is decided, including the possibility of league discipline.
Whenever there is an altercation between players, the league office reviews the game tape to determine if additional disciplinary action — fines or suspensions — is required. It was unclear whether Pacers players came off the bench to assist Hill during the incident that occurred near their bench.
“We’ve got to be professionals,” West said. “At this point in the season, it’s about the group. . . . We’re going to stay encouraged as a group and, hopefully, put up our best game of the series in Game 7.”