Pacers Sweep 76ers Out of Playoff Picture, 89-86
By Steve Wyche
PHILADELPHIA, May 23—All it took was two minutes for the Indiana Pacers to prove the value of experience.
The Pacers lost an 11-point lead after not scoring a field goal for nearly 10 minutes in the fourth quarter, then took advantage of a meltdown by the Philadelphia 76ers to sweep their Eastern Conference semifinal series with an 89-86 victory today before 20,844 at First Union Center.
Indiana advances to the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in six years after winning its seventh straight postseason game and sweeping its second consecutive series, this sweep coming with four hard-fought victories over the 76ers.
The Pacers will have home-court advantage in the conference finals against either the New York Knicks or Atlanta Hawks. That series would begin Friday at the earliest.
"We have been playing extremely well, especially in the playoffs," Pacers Coach Larry Bird said. "We were fortunate to make the plays down the stretch."
Forward Chris Mullin snapped the Pacers' fourth-quarter drought and brought them to 83-82 with a three-pointer from the top of the arc with 2 minutes 2 seconds remaining. Reggie Miller (23 points) followed Allen Iverson's missed jump shot with a 15-foot runner that gave the Pacers an 84-83 lead with 1:31 left.
The 76ers, who rallied to go up by four with 3:17 left, committed two turnovers and missed three shots down the stretch -- costly failures that gleaned the inexperience of not playing in the postseason since 1991.
"When you're in a tight game the best way to play is really by reaction," said Mullin, whose late three-pointer was Indiana's first basket since 2:12 remained in the third quarter. "There's no time to think and analyze. It's just a reaction thing."
A reaction thing borne out of the familiarity of playing with the same teammates for years and being part of a team that has made the postseason a habit. "I have a veteran group over there who have the mind-set of winning a championship," Bird said. "They are a really focused bunch."
Philadelphia, meanwhile, got its first taste of the growing pains endured by many teams that have become playoff regulars, as the Pacers are. They were not naive enough to think they could overcome a 3-0 deficit, something no team has done.
However, winning at least once might prove beneficial in future years, some 76ers players said. Point guard Eric Snow figured as much, which is why he blamed himself for Philadelphia's loss.
"It's on me," Snow kept repeating as he sat dejected in his locker stall after the game.
Up 83-79 with 2:44 left, Snow threw a lob pass well behind unsuspecting center Matt Geiger on the baseline. Philadelphia was spared when Indiana guard Mark Jackson (13 assists) missed a three-pointer. But Snow threw another errant pass on the next possession and Mullin made the 76ers pay with the three-pointer that brought the Pacers within one.
Philadelphia missed its final four field goal attempts while the Pacers followed a layup by Rik Smits -- and his block of a three-pointer by Iverson -- with 3 of 4 free throws. "If I hadn't turned the ball over twice we have a great chance to win," Snow said.
Along with Iverson, who scored eight of his game-high 25 points in the fourth quarter, Snow helped the 76ers rally from a 73-62 deficit at the start of the final period to take a 79-77 lead on a layup by Tyrone Hill. Philadelphia also got a huge game from Geiger, who bounced back from Game 3, in which he had no rebounds, to record 23 points and 13 rebounds.
Indiana's starting five was just too much, though. All five starters had at least 10 points, which was needed because the Pacers' reserves, usually a strength, managed just 11 points total. More than anything, though, Indiana's poise was the difference.
"We never stopped [believing in] ourselves," said Smits, who had 15 points and seven rebounds. "We withstood their runs, and they made a great run [when] they got up by four in the fourth. Less experienced teams might have panicked a little bit, felt the pressure. We did an excellent job coming up with the big plays."
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