After winning Game 7 of their first-round series, the Indiana Pacers can feel good about themselves knowing that they survived two elimination games. Sure, it was “just” against the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, but winning Games 6 and 7 might have just given them the confidence back that made them the top team in the Eastern Conference.
But how far will this moral victory take the Pacers?
Jekyll and Hyde
The 2013-14 Indiana Pacers had two personalities. Dr. Jekyll had the best record in the NBA at 46-13 on March 2. They transformed to Mr. Hyde after that, going on a 2-9 stretch from March 22 to April 6. The Pacers went on to finish the season with a mediocre 10-10 win/loss record.
Despite that dual personality, the Pacers still managed to hold off the Miami Heat for the best record in the East, but not without internal issues.
Roy Hibbert cast the first stone. After losing to the Washington Wizards, Hibbert muttered, via CBSSports.com:
“Some selfish dudes. I’m tired of talking about it. We’ve been talking about it for a month.”
Then there was the alleged fist fight between Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner on the eve of the playoffs, as reported by Yahoo Sports:
“Two Indiana Pacers dragged a cursing, cut Evan Turner out of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court, untangling him from a practice-floor fistfight with teammate Lance Stephenson.”
The Pacers came into this season as one of the favorites to win the title. They were young, talented, and they had this seemingly strong bond that made the team a tough nut to crack. As ESPN.com reported:
“A strong bond is what helped Indiana have the best record for most of the season; it’s why Vogel was the Eastern Conference All-Star coach. That bond has weakened.”
That bond weakened at the wrong time, just when the season ended and just as the playoffs were about to start.
Hawked by Atlanta
The Atlanta Hawks took advantage of the Pacers’ vulnerability and raced to a 3-2 lead in their first-round series, but as early as Game 1, which the Pacers lost, a lot of people had already written them off:
“That home court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that mattered so much to the Indiana Pacers that they staked their season on it – maybe even strained their season going after it – is gone. Gone, like those sad, bewildered fans leaving early Saturday into the Indianapolis night, their body language trudging up the stairs looking as defeated as the team on the floor.”
That being said, the Indiana Pacers somehow managed to salvage a Game 4 victory in Atlanta to even the series at two games apiece. It wasn’t easy, and as David West called it, via USAToday.com: “In the fourth quarter, we just made enough plays. The season was on the line.”
The season was on the line again when they lost Game 5. Yet again, they mustered enough will to finish Game 6 on a 16-4 run to force Game 7.
The Return of the Defense Minister
Although the biggest winning margin for the Pacers was 16 in Game 3, Game 7 was their most convincing win because Roy Hibbert finally showed up. As Paul George said, via ABCNews.com:
“We know that when he is locked in offensively, his defense is off the charts. That’s when he becomes special. I thought he was very special for us.”
Hibbert was averaging 4 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks through the first six games of the series. He netted 13 points and 7 rebounds in Game 7. More importantly, he was the rock on defense with five blocked shots.
The Pacers were +24.6 when Hibbert was on the floor; they were -9.3 with him from Games 1 to 6. The Hawks also shot 3-of-15 with Hibbert as the primary defender, including 3-of-12 by Paul Millsap. The Pacers also held the Hawks to 30.4 percent field-goal shooting in Game 6, including limiting them to 15-of-37 inside the paint.
The offense flowed from their defense. Paul George scored a playoff career-high 30 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Lance Stephenson had 19 points, while George Hill added 15 for the Pacers.
With the victory, the Pacers advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs, and more importantly got their confidence and bearings back after two straight victories. “We’re happy to get over this hump,” Paul George said via ESPN.com,“and get ready for the next task.”
Waiting for them now are the overachieving Washington Wizards.
Casting a Spell
The Indiana Pacers cast a spell on the Washington Wizards in their season series. They beat Washington in their first two encounters by an average of 23.5 points. The Wizards won the last game between the two teams back on March 28, but this was at the height of the Pacers’ struggles. If the Pacers have indeed recovered to their true form, then the Wizards are in deep trouble.
Of course, Nene will be a factor, as he was absent during their regular season series. And while Nene dominated Joakim Noah, the Chicago Bulls had no one aside from Noah who could match Nene’s physicality. But the Pacers have Roy Hibbert, David West, Ian Mahinmi, and Luis Scola, who can all muscle up with Hilario down low.
The Pacers’ two wins against the Wizards during the regular season were in Indiana. They lost the lone game in DC. The Pacers had the best home record in the NBA during the regular season at 35-6. They lost once at home during the first round to the Hawks. The law of averages tells us that the Pacers will win the series. With their starting lineup playing with a renewed fire, the Pacers are looking good right now.
Beat the Heat
If by a longshot the Brooklyn Nets beat the Miami Heat in the second round, the Indiana Pacers went 4-0 against them during the regular season.
However, as with last season, the brick wall in the East is the defending NBA champions Heat. Their season series with the Pacers was 2-2, with the home team winning each game. The Heat have the advantage, by winning their last meeting convincingly 98-86, but again, this was when the Pacers were having issues. In their other win back on December 18, the Heat’s winning margin was just three points.
On the other hand, the Pacers beat Miami by an average margin of 3.5 points. So these teams are pretty evenly matched. In fact, when they faced each other in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat needed seven games to dispose of the Pacers, with Game 7 being in Miami.
That’s why the Pacers were obsessed about getting the best record in the East this season. They knew that they could’ve beaten the Heat last year if they had home court advantage. Now that they have it in the East, we’ll see if their theory holds true, of course if they are able to make it that far.
If the Indiana Pacers do advance to the NBA Finals, they still have a good chance. If the lower seeds, being the Portland Trail Blazers and LA Clippers, win the West, then the Pacers own the numbers. They are 2-0 against the Clippers and 1-1 against Portland during this season. Again, the home team won both times in the Portland series. With the home court edge, Indiana is likely to pull it off.
The top two teams in the West are the only teams to have a better record in the league than the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers held the top spot in the NBA for most of the season, but lost it during the last 20 games. They still managed to split their season series with the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. Again, the Pacers won both home games. Although both San Antonio and Oklahoma City have an equally impressive home record, Indiana, the Dr. Jekyll team, is capable of beating any team in the NBA.
However, it’s easier said than done. All the Pacers need to do is steal one road game from the Spurs or Thunder to get a good head start. That being said, they both are close to unbeatable at home.
Will They Self-Destruct again?
Coach Frank Vogel said that the team has long settled their issues, and that those issues were bloated by the media, via SportingNews.com:
“I never really felt like we were that far. I know there was a lot written about in our struggles in the late part of the season, but I don’t think that was part of what happened in our first-round matchup. I think you had a team that played exceptionally well and was coached exceptionally well and presented a matchup challenge for us. But I don’t really feel like we strayed that far from who we are.”
In Game 7, the Indiana Pacers proved coach Vogel to be correct, but as to taking it all the way, that remains to be seen. For those who continue to write off the Pacers, do remember that in 2008 the Boston Celtics struggled with the Hawks for seven games in the first round of the playoffs. They won their first road game of the playoffs in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. They went on to win the NBA title that year.
The Pacers might have peaked too early in the season. They looked wasted, tired, and lost during the last month of the regular season, but like any athlete, they have that second wind. If the Indiana Pacers have indeed gotten their second wind, then the rest of the teams are in for a lot of trouble.
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