It's been seven long years since the Indiana Pacers have stood in this spot. Arguably the darkest stretch in franchise history has been lifted, a stretch littered with bad apples, albatross contracts, poor coaching, and a severe lack of on court talent. Sure the matter in which the Pacers beat the Orlando Magic may be up for debate, but the games were still played and the Pacers still came out on top, defeating Orlando 4-1 to advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2005.
The Pacers opened up with some nice play from Paul George, who out of the gate drilled his first three pointer of the series as the Magic held close early with the game knotted at 7 before the Pacers front court led the way for a 21-6 run to put them up 15 late in the first quarter. As has been the theme in this series, the resiliency of the Magic was on full display as they responded with an 11-2 run on the Indiana second unit to draw the game back to single digits.
Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa salvaged a slow second unit stretch to maintain Indiana's lead as the Magic had considerable fortunes from the three point arc, with each Ryan Anderson and Jameer Nelson triple inching the Magic closer. It wasn't so much Orlando's threes that set the tone, but the Pacers' responses to those threes. George Hill and Danny Granger had big games from behind the arc, hitting six of the team's nine threes.
Orlando took a 10-0 run late in the second to close the game to one before Roy Hibbert put the game back to three as the half drew to a close. The Pacers had controlled the series by controlling the third quarter, and for the first time in the series, the Magic aimed to take that away from the blue and gold. Jameer Nelson led the Magic in a big way as he gave Orlando 15 of their 24 third quarter points as the Pacers lost the quarter for the first time in the series, as they trailed heading into the fourth.
George Hill was one of the lone bright spots for a struggling Pacers offense in the third quarter, but Darren Colison entered the game, helping to energize the offense just enough even though the Magic continued to play strong to close out the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, it became Collison's show. He not only looked for his shot, but was absolutely on fire, hitting 9 of his 10 shots, including 15 of his 19 in the fourth. The Pacers used Collison's play to step up on the defensive end and really take the Magic out of any rhythm they had in the third quarter.
Indiana rode Collison's quarter (who also dished all six of his assists in the quarter) to a 36-16 beat down as the Pacers ran away from the Magic, putting the series on ice, and advancing in the postseason to live at least four more games. A huge advantage for the Pacers was Frank Vogel's decision to go small by playing both Collison and Hill. The Pacers led 89-80 with five minutes left in the game and closed the game on a 16-7 run to double the lead and erase any chance of an Orlando comeback in the final minutes.
- Darren Collison was a huge catalyst tonight. His activity in the fourth quarter was monumental for a Pacers team that needed someone to step up and take control of a feisty Magic team on their last breath. The real positive wasn't so much just how well Collison played, but that he became more willing to look for his own shot tonight, something that is an absolute necessity for this second unit moving forward. In an attempt to bring up a cautionary note while not trying to rain on his parade, this kind of play has been seen from DC in the past. When Collison is on, he's absolutely on. The issue as the Pacers move forward is that he may have to fight through nights where he isn't necessarily feeling his shot to still provide the second unit a punch. In the meantime, however, joy!
- As Collison moved the offense when he came into the game, George Hill didn't seem to have a full grasp on the team's offensive flow, one of the rare games he hasn't played a high level of ball since taking over the starting gig. The offense ran through Hill, who had to carry the terrible offensive play throughout stretches. Like Collison's game, taking this as more than it is may not be worth the effort, but taking note of it as the team moves forward will be key since Hill is one of the surefire advantages the Pacers will have in their next series, whether they face the Heat or Knicks.
- Danny Granger played a high level of basketball, lethal from beyond the arc with four triples (timely triples), to finish the night with 25 points. He tacked on three assists and was a very quiet and efficient add-on to Collison's big quarter, adding in 12 of his own points in the fourth. The real test for Granger begins in the next round, but this was a great opportunity to get into a rhythm for the series.
- Paul George was also involved in the same capacity. He hit a pair of three pointers (his first two of the postseason) and did some work on the glass. For all of the good things George has been able to do this postseason, he's found himself in some tough situations almost as often. Defensive breakdowns, poor decisions on offense and defense, turnover prone, these things can be absolutely lethal if he's matching up against Dwyane Wade or LeBron James. George has a lot of great defensive tools, but it seems he overestimates the tools and looks to allow those to be bail out measures rather than staying locked down and not gambling. Those are all signs of a young player who is incredibly young. George is a key part of the next series, let's hope his youth doesn't cause more harm than good.
- David West and Roy Hibbert each had solid stretches, especially defensively in the case of Roy Hibbert, who held Glen Davis to an inefficient 8-17 shooting. Both had quiet offensive nights, combining for 23 points and 15 boards between the two of them, but they provided just what the team needed tonight in order to advance in the postseason. The beauty of this team is how they don't need high production from the same players every night, and to blow this game wide open without needing West to dominate offensively has to continue to play a big part in the next round.
So the Indiana Pacers advance in the NBA Playoffs. A huge debt of credit has to go to Larry Bird, who was once (and well, often) called the worst GM in the NBA as the Pacers plodded through 36-46 seasons, narrow playoff misses, and complete lack of roster movement. But patience prevailed for Bird, who gets to see the plan no one thought existed result in a playoff series victory.
A playoff victory is nice, but this team is in built in a way that can still move forward from even this point. The Pacers will look forward to facing the winner of the Miami Heat and New York Knicks. With the Heat taking a 3-0 series lead, the general assumption is this series is on life support and Miami can close up shop tomorrow night on TNT.
The good news is no longer will the Pacers have to fight through built-in disadvantages that come with facing Orlando, the bad news is they'll almost certainly have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh to contend with. Indiana will have an opportunity to use their depth to their advantage against the top heavy Heat. Whether it's enough to contend across seven games will be seen, but it's a great opportunity for the Indiana Pacers to make an emphatic statement to the league about what team ball can do to a team of superstars. Get ready!