After six long games, the Indiana Pacers finally strung together nearly 48 minutes of solid basketball in game 7 to eliminate the pesky Hawks, 92-80, and will move on to the second round against the impressive Washington Wizards, who disposed of the Chicago Bulls in 5). I’m not just saying this because they won — they played for each other, played to their strengths, and locked down on defense, at last. They dominated the glass 55-38 and held the Hawks to 30.4% shooting, including forcing them to jack up an NBA record 44 three-pointers with only 11 makes. All series long the Hawks lived and died by the three, and tonight it caught up to them. As Paul George said after the game, the grind of the long, physical series finally took its toll on the legs of the Hawks shooters.
The only thing that kept the Hawks in the game was 7 first-quarter and 11 first-half turnovers from the Pacers, who took an 11-point lead into the break. They only had another 6 turnovers the rest of the way and kept the Hawks at bay with their suffocating defense, while Paul George, scoring a career playoff high 30 points, kept the Pacers rolling along on the scoreboard whenever the Hawks tried to make a run. PG also had 11 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the series, and finished the 7 games averaging 23.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.4 steals. He was 2-14 from downtown in the last 2 games of the series but still finished the series shooting 40.4% from behind the arc and 45.8% overall. Throw in his exceptional defense on Jeff Teague and, ladies and gentlemen, that is a superstar right there.
The story of the night, however, belonged to Roy Hibbert, who emerged from his long slump out of nowhere to not only play meaningful minutes but actually contribute.
Some time between the end of game 6 and the start of game 7, something clicked for Roy Hibbert. Maybe he will explain after the game, but for whatever reason, he came to play tonight, looking nothing like the shell of a player he had been all series. I started off hoping Vogel would bench him the entire game, but by the end of it all, I was like the rest of the Pacers fans in attendance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse — giving him a standing ovation.
Look, 13 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocks on 6-10 shooting isn’t exactly domination, but for Hibbert it was as though he had been changed from a zombie back into human form like Nicholas Hoult in Warm Bodies (oops, is that a spoiler?). His team-leading +16 plus-minus is also an eyebrow raiser. He’ll need to keep it up against Nene and Gortat in the second round if the Pacers are to stand a chance.
There were lots of other sub-plots in the victory. Lance Stephenson was the spark plug for the team tonight with his incredible energy. He had 19 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists and I think his aggression led the team from the get-go. He did pick up a ridiculous technical for simply playing hard, a technical that should absolutely be revoked.
George Hill shot poorly (3-10) but finished with 15, 5 and 4, and I’ll take that stat line any day of the week as long as he plays with the same amount of aggression and confidence. David West got hit in the nuggets and finished with just 4 points on 1-7 shooting to go with 6 turnovers, but he still made his presence felt with 13 rebounds, 4 assists and a team-leading 6 blocks. As a team, the Pacers swatted 13 shots, with the other 2 going to Ian Mahinmi, who had an emphatic swat of Jeff Teague’s dunk at the half-time buzzer.
Chris Copeland and CJ Watson were the two other guys who played as Vogel shortened his rotation to just 8 players, and both of them played a factor in the game, combining for 10 points. It was perhaps more interesting to see Evan Turner and especially Luis Scola pick up DNPs, but I suspect they will both have key roles against the Wizards.
For now, the Pacers can breathe a sigh of relief after avoiding embarrassment in the first round. With the way the Wizards have been playing however, they’ll need to step it up to another level if they want a potential date with the Miami Heat in the Conference Finals.