At the start, Lance Stephenson was too dialed in to even walk out during starters' introductions. At the end, Roy Hibbert felt the relief of his critics falling off his back so that he could wave his arms and direct fans inside sold-out Bankers Life Fieldhouse to make even more noise. First, focus. Then, elation as the Indiana Pacers protected their home court, their top seed and their pride in finally dispatching the No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks with a 92-80 win Saturday in Game 7. The Pacers advance to host the No. 5 Wizards, who defeated the Chicago Bulls in five games, in the conference semifinals beginning Monday night. All series long, the Pacers tested the theory that a higher seed should have an easier time against a lower-ranked rival. Saturday evening would be no different. Indiana pushed ahead by 17 points in the third quarter and it seemed as if the Pacers squad from earlier in the season had returned. Then complacency followed the dominance. Sound familiar? The Pacers of February, the best-record darlings of the NBA, morphed into the dogs of March. Their record and play spiraled and loose lips in the locker room suggested that the team did not handle early success well enough. That Indiana team — with its war paint and warts — showed up again on Saturday. A big lead, then premature celebrations and loose play. At one point, Stephenson even approached the scorers' table more concerned about his statistics than the fact that the Hawks were in the midst of their hottest stretch of the second half, making 3-of-4 shots. "You missed my rebound!" Stephenson pointed out. So while the Pacers eased up, the Hawks roared back and trimmed the lead to eight. Surely, anxious fans who had watched their Pacers' up-and-down performance in the second half of the season wondered how their team would respond in the fourth quarter. Would they emerge as a championship contender? Or get exposed as a front-runner fraud? Thankfully for the fans' sanity and the team's playoff hopes, the dominant Pacers walked back on the floor. Paul George scored the Pacers' next six points and the defense bullied the Hawks into 17 misses through the fourth quarter, including 11 from beyond the arc. "It was very good to really get that weight off of our back," Pacers guard George Hill said. The defense favored the more aggressive opponent and the moment preferred the experienced ones. Every Indiana starter had been here before and it showed, as the Pacers elected to go with a tight eight-man rotation, relying heavily on the first five. Hibbert pulled it together for 13 points and five blocks. Stephenson played as a live wire for 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting and 14 rebounds. Hill knocked down all nine of his free throw attempts and finished with 15 points. David West steadied those around him with 13 rebounds, six blocks and four assists to add to his series team-leading total of 34. Then, there was George — stepping up in this series with his sixth double-double, scoring a playoff career-high 30 points to go with 11 rebounds. "This was a long series," said George, who clocked nearly 285 minutes through the seven games, more than any other player. "We're happy to get over this hump and get ready for the next task, which is preparing for the Wizards." Through the series, the Pacers faced deficits of 10, 11, 15, 20 and even 30 points. At times, they looked overmatched against the Hawks' spread look. However, for the second straight game, the Pacers played big when it mattered. The rim protection from the front line produced 13 blocks and even the push-up perimeter defense forced the Hawks into an ugly 11-of-44 from the 3-point line.
Pacers pull together for 92-80 Game 7 victory over Hawks
Indianapolis Star | May 4