For the first time all series, the Indiana Pacers came together as a team as they pulled out a decisive victory over the Atlanta Hawks to win their best of seven series 4-3 and move on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the third consecutive year. More importantly, it was the first time the Indiana starters have pieced together back-to-back performances of note since before the All-Star Break.
Indiana wound up winners, but didn't set themselves up in that position early in the game, with five turnovers in the game's opening five minutes lending the Hawks a 6-2 advantage. While Atlanta maintained their lead through much of the first with the play of Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague, the biggest surprise was the resurrection of Roy Hibbert. Hibbert was a force in his first quarter run, scoring eight points on 4-5 shooting, rebounding well, and setting the tone for a rough night for Paul Millsap.
Hibbert left the game with the Pacers in better shape than he found them, leading 17-16. Mike Scott helped lead a 7-0 Hawks run as a response after Hibbert left the game and Indiana went small with Chris Copeland, but they missed their last six shots of the quarter, allowing the Pacers to jump back on top with a 7-0 run of their own. The Hawks went back on top thanks to a Korver four point play at 32-29 at the 9:33 mark in the second.
From there, the defensive intensity of the Pacers took a huge step forward; the Pacers holding the Hawks to 1-15 shooting in the final nine and a half minutes of the half, as they turned a three point deficit into an 11 point halftime advantage at 47-36. The Pacers held the Hawks to 30% shooting in the first half, while going into the break at 53% themselves.
Atlanta showed some life in ending their field goal drought, scoring the first four of the third quarter. Indiana responded with a 10-0 to jump ahead 57-40. George Hill had seven points in the run, capping with a big three point play on Teague. The Pacers defense continued to work down low, Hibbert and David West each coming up with a pair of blocks during the run.
The Pacers maintained their 17 point lead before Shelvin Mack put in five quick points to trim the lead to 12. Mike Scott had five of his own to bring it to 11 before more threes by Mack and Scott drew the Hawks to within eight points heading into the fourth quarter, the Pacers leading 71-63. The Hawks finally broke out of their shooting funk, scoring 12 points in just over two minutes.
While they trimmed into what was a 14 point deficit, Indiana was able to stay afloat thanks to the play of Paul George. George had 11 points in about a four minute stretch to end the third and start the fourth, not only keeping the Hawks from cutting it any closer than eight, but push the lead back to 13. George to that point was having a stellar game, but took his night to an entirely different level, hitting a variety of tough shots to carry his team.
The Pacers defense once again began to do their part, forcing turnovers and holding the Hawks to a technical free throw in the first 4:45 of the quarter, with Indiana pushing their lead back to 16 at 80-64. The Hawks made a quick 4-0 run before Frank Vogel wisely whistled a timeout to settle his team, ballooning the lead up to 18 with 5:16 remaining in the fourth.
With the Hawks reaching record heights for number of three point attempts, it was clear they weren't going to bow down, Korver putting in a pair as part of a 10-2 run that trimmed Indiana's lead to just 10 with 1:27 remaining. But short of a barrage of three pointers actually going in, the Hawks simply didn't have the time to make the comeback as Lance Stephenson put the cap on the game with a fast break dunk as the Pacers wrapped up the 92-80 victory.
The Hawks would wind up at just 30.4% for the game from the floor, getting nearly half of their 92 shots up from three point range. Atlanta set a postseason record for three point attempts in a game with 44. They hit 11, but for the first time all series, the volume of three pointers worked as a disadvantage for the Hawks as opposed to the volume giving them a greater room for error.
Part of that was due to Indiana gaining the upper hand in the free throw game tonight, slicing into Atlanta's margin for error. The Pacers outscored Atlanta 23-13 from the free throw line. That makes up some of the difference in the field goal attempts gap, but the Hawks had 22 extra shots to work with, but a healthy combination of poor Atlanta shooting and stellar Indiana defense kept the Hawks from capitalizing on their advantages.
The Pacers were particularly turnover prone at stretches tonight, eventually totaling 18 on the night, but did a fantastic job at preventing the Hawks from capitalizing directly off of those turnovers, scoring only nine points. In addition to the turnovers, the Pacers helped create extra opportunities throughout the early stages of the game with their inability to come up with 50/50 balls on out of bounds plays.
There wasn't a huge lack of effort, just struggles at times to come up with loose balls, but Lance Stephenson was a monumental key as far as Indiana's success in the hustle game went. Stephenson had 17 points and 14 rebounds, coming up with impressive and timely boards all night, grabbing half of Indiana's 10 offensive boards. Stephenson had five assists, going 8-12 from the floor.
Vogel used the same eight man rotation as he did in Game 6, but the real difference was the effectiveness of Roy Hibbert. Hibbert entered Game 7 averaging just 4.0 points and 3.2 rebounds a game. He had just four blocks and was shooting 30.3% from the floor. But things seemed to come together for the big dawg, who had eight points and five boards in the first quarter.
Hibbert finished with 13 points on 6-10 shooting, pulling in seven boards (two on the offensive end), and coming up with five blocks. For the first time in the series, Hibbert made Atlanta pay for their smaller rotations on offense, and for the first time in the series, he was a difference maker on the defensive end. Paul Millsap was a woeful 6-21 from the floor, in large part due to Hibbert's smothering defense.
The Pacers as a team had 13 blocks on the night, all between three players. Hibbert had five, and Ian Mahinmi had two (including one devastating block on Jeff Teague that was the death knoll his series). David West made up the other six, playing as well as someone who was just 1-7 from the floor can play. West had just four points, but had 13 rebounds to go with his six blocks.
On a night when the starters were given the bulk of minutes, it was nice to see everyone step up around West as opposed to needing West to step up around everyone else. It made his extra contributions that much more valuable. George Hill was a real surprise on the night with 15 points, five points, and four assists. He too struggled from the floor at 3-10 (0-5 from three point range), but made the most of his free throw game, getting to the line and hitting all nine of his attempts.
Perhaps the biggest stretch of the game came from Paul George, whose 11 points late in the third and early in the fourth may have saved a monumental collapse from a Hawks team that had finally found some success shooting the ball. George missed his final seven attempts on tired legs, but leading up to that was a cool 11-16 from the floor, wrapping up with another double double of 30 points and 11 rebounds.
The 30 points was a playoff career high, wrapping up a tremendous series where George averaged 23.9 points and 10.7 rebounds on 45.8% shooting. This, his Game 7, at least through the early stages of the fourth, was his best work yet. Not only was George pushing the lead when he had the chance, but was hitting very tough shots along the way to his 30 points, while still making a difference on the defensive end against Teague, who was just 5-16 (and 0-1 from three).
Plenty of history was made today. Not only did the Hawks set the record for most three point attempts in a postseason game, but they blew the league record for most three point attempts in a series out of the water with 230. Of all things to look back on with this series, this is certainly the one thing that won't be missed at all. Atlanta's three point shooting was a frustrating two week ordeal, one the Pacers were fortunate to survive.
The win also caps Indiana's first 2-3 comeback series win in their NBA history. They had two such comebacks in the ABA, last completed in 1972 when they downed the Utah Stars in seven games en route to their second ABA Championship. Today's victory will set up a second round matchup with the Washington Wizards, set to tip off on Monday. The Wizards made quick work of the Chicago Bulls, beating them in five.
The advantage for playing the Wizards? The Pacers will be able to get back to their traditional strengths and rotations. That means Luis Scola will certainly return to the rotation after missing the last two games, though the long term plan on Evan Turner should be an interesting one. It will also give Hibbert a better opportunity to settle into a meaningful postseason with the traditional bigs of Nene and Marcin Gortat for the Wizards not torching Hibbert from the arc. That doesn't mean they won't torch Hibbert anyway, but it will play more to Hibbert's strengths, which after today, might actually exist.
Ultimately, the Atlanta series will be remembered as a maddening, frustrating seven games series where the Pacers avoided an 8-1 upset. The bemoaning of Indiana's downfall, their impending roster and coaching changes will take a (temporary) backseat as the slate is wiped clean, the Pacers going back to 0-0, and standing as one of NBA's final eight. Get on board and hope things are set to be built upon in Indiana's Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup against Washington, the first ever postseason meeting between the two teams.