As the Spurs wait in the West, the Heat and Pacers grind through the last phase of the East playoffs, a spot in the Finals at stake. In the meantime, we’re Throwin’ Elbows, and we’re going to start with the one guy who has probably been most important to stamping this Indiana team with maturity and toughness.

It has only been 18 months since Pacers forward David West faced a difficult decision on the future of his career. The Celtics had made a strong push to sign him to a three-year deal, though he was coming off knee surgery, but West could not quite tell the direction in which the franchise was heading. Instead, he picked the Pacers, accepting a two-year deal worth $20 million.

When Boston reached the conference finals last year, taking the Heat to seven games—after the Pacers were knocked out by Miami in the second round—it looked as though West might have made a poor choice. Now, though, West sees some validation in coming to the Midwest, as Indiana heads to Game 6 against Miami on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“I knew what type of guys we would have in this locker room, what type of men we have in this locker room,” West told Sporting News. “Everybody on the outside is probably surprised, but I am not. I know what type of men we have in here, the work ethic, to a man, that is part of this group and the coaching staff. The mix of the young talent—this is a young basketball team. Guys are 22, 23, these guys are young. This is what we expected.”

West’s presence has been a critical factor in the development of the Pacers top two young stars, Paul George and Roy Hibbert. Early in the season, when the Pacers were mired in a team-wide shooting slump (they shot 40.7 percent in November and just 42.9 percent in the first half of the year), it was West who kept the team above water, easily the team’s most consistent player over the course of this year.

“What I talk about with these guys all the time is maturity, and learning from game to game,” West said. “Starting with last year, I thought we did that. But at the start of this year, I thought, this is exactly where we expected to be. We expected to be in the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat. Even with the slow start we got off to, this is exactly where we expected to be. We knew we could get to this point.”

What’s most remarkable is that West has been so effective for Indiana this year, at age 32. After the knee surgery—in addition to playing with a new team in a reduced role—West averaged 12.8 points last year, his lowest output since his second season in the NBA. He came back strong this season, though, averaging 17.1 points and shooting 49.8 percent.

That’s why, when that two-year deal he signed with Indiana runs up this summer, West will be a hot commodity despite his advancing age. The Clippers are prepared to make him an offer, and according to a source, the Hawks could make him a priority, too. Should Memphis move Zach Randolph, West would be a natural fit there as well.