When Jeff Teague hit a tough jumper to put the Atlanta Hawks up 84-79 late in the fourth quarter, things certainly looked bleak for the Indiana Pacers, putting their season on life support in the game's final minutes. The jumper from Teague completed an 8-2 run by he and Paul Millsap, giving the Hawks their biggest lead since the first quarter with just 3:15 remaining in the fourth.
The Hawks had jumped out early, leading 17-7 as Roy Hibbert's start proved absolutely dismal, two fouls sending him to the bench, sending Chris Copeland in for meaningful minutes. Indiana finished off the first quarter on a 13-5 run, scoring the first five the second to take a 25-22 lead. Back to back Pacers threes from Lance Stephenson and C.J. Watson pushed Indiana ahead 35-30, before Teague tied the game up at 35.
With under a minute in the half remaining, the Pacers led 41-36 when a scuffle between George Hill and Mike Scott resulted in a double technical and a foul on Scott. Hill missed both free throws off the foul, but the discussion to come from it involved Indiana's bench reaction, though Scott's actions on the scuffle, grabbing at Hill, deserved an ejection. Rasual Butler urged the bench to stay back, wandering out onto the floor in the process, and will likely warrant an automatic suspension for it. But the discussion will be heavily skewed towards Paul George, who's foot found its way onto the court.
According to the NBA rules, "all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of the bench." The bench rule was famous exercised in 2007 between San Antonio and Phoenix, when Amar'e Stoudemire was suspended for leaving Phoenix's bench. With regards to this, George remained well within the "vicinity" of the bench, whether the league believes that to be the case remains to be seen. The suspension for Butler on the other hand seems almost obvious, and may make the case for George easier if the league chooses to review it further.
Lou Williams and Hill swapped three pointers to close the half, keeping Indiana ahead by five at 44-39. In the first half, the Pacers shot much better than Atlanta, but a rebounding disadvantage favored Atlanta in extra field goal attempts, which they used at the three point line, throwing up 22 first half attempts, hitting only five. But the success of the Hawks in this series has been measured by their makes, not their misses, and the Pacers had a tough time shaking Atlanta as Kyle Korver and Millsap hit a pair of threes to open the third quarter.
The Pacers weathered the threes well, with George and West pushing the Pacers lead up to nine at 57-48. On the following play, Teague drew a foul on George, his fourth, sending him to the bench for the remaining five minutes of the third quarter. In that time, Atlanta outscored the Pacers 19-7, with Teague carving up the Indiana defense and getting to the line at will.
Teague had 12 points in the third quarter, including their final six to set up Atlanta's lead heading into the fourth quarter, eventually pushing it to five with three minutes remaining. Trailing 84-79, the Pacers got a huge lift from David West, who not only scored Indiana's next four points, but forced a turnover on the Hawks to help the Pacers to a 6-0 run to take the 85-84 lead.
Pero Antic would get fouled, heading to the line, split the free throws, the Hawks missing a second half free throw for the first time of the night to tie the game 85-85. West hit another big shot to put Indiana back and the lead, and the Pacers defense came up in a big way with Ian Mahinmi helping to force turnovers and block big shots down the stretch.
Indiana would go on to seal the game at the free throw line as the Hawks went cold and the Pacers hit six straight FTs to push their lead to eight at 93-85. The Pacers would come out on top 95-88 as they wrapped up the win on a 16-4 run to force a Game 7 in Indianapolis. Indiana proved much more active than they looked in the opening minutes, and it helped in limiting Atlanta's effectiveness from beyond the arc.
Atlanta shot 9-35, their worst output of the series, as the Pacers turned a huge rebounding deficit into a 47-44 rebounding win to limit the extra shot attempts for the Hawks. The Pacers also won the free throw battle, though late intentional fouling helped push it over, the Pacers outscored Atlanta 23-21 from the line.
The poor three point shooting, as Indiana closed better to shooters and the Hawks just missed looks, and the increase in play from the line helped minimize the domination of Jeff Teague in the second half. Teague had 29 points on 9-21 shooting, but had just two assists. Paul Millsap, on the other hand, had 18 rebounds to go along with 16 points on 4-13 shooting. The Hawks were just 35.8% from the field, their 14 turnovers leading to 22 Pacers points.
Indiana was led by David West, who had a 24 point, 11 rebound double double. West was huge down the stretch, scoring 12 fourth quarter points after a bit of a sluggish shooting start. West guided Indiana back from their crucial five point deficit, playing the calming go-to role for a team in need of a boost down the stretch. He was helped out by Paul George, who had another solid night, especially defensively against Teague.
When George was in the game, Teague's effectiveness was almost invisible. George didn't shoot particularly well at just 7-18, but got to the line 10 times, hitting nine as part of his 24 point outing. He also had eight rebounds. Lance Stephenson was the third 20-point scorer for Indiana, scoring 21 points and grabbing nine boards. He was a solid spark early in quarters, going 6-7 from the line.
The Pacers rotations were the biggest changes, with Frank Vogel really moving pieces around. Roy Hibbert got the start, and the Pacers played their worst ball of the game with him on the floor to start. The Pacers fell behind 10 points before he picked up his second foul and they played much better without him on the floor. He returned late in the third quarter and was as much help as he's been in this series in his second stint, helping to anchor some key defensive stops, though foul trouble kept his night short.
It was easier to work without Hibbert when Ian Mahinmi had his best game of the series tonight. Mahinmi was active on the glass, pulling in six boards, while doing an excellent job defending without fouling. He had a pair of blocks, the biggest in the game's final minute, when he was a real defensive anchor for the Pacers, who have had real difficulty finding success with their traditional centers at any point in this series.
Chris Copeland got the primary backup spot as the replacement for Hibbert in the first half. Copeland was fairly lackluster, he had just five points with three turnovers, but his value and ability to spread the floor forced Atlanta to honor his presence much in the way Indiana is forced to honor Pero Antic, despite Antic's play in this series being dreadful. It'd be a real surprise for Copeland to not see a similar rotation in Game 7. His defense was certainly above Luis Scola, despite a couple of bad fouls and passes.
C.J. Watson provided some solid minutes with seven points, doing a good job on Teague early in the game when George was off of him. He had time with George Hill, who had a nice up and down game of 14 points on 5-12 shooting. Hill came up with some big plays in the second half, kickstarted by his three to end the first half. That three was big coming off of two misses at the free throw line, erasing a crucial five point swing set up by Lou Williams.
The Pacers have forced a Game 7, which will tip off Saturday in Indianapolis. While this wasn't exactly the series they expected to need it, this is exactly what Indiana wanted the top seed for; to have deciding games at home. For it to actually matter, however, the Pacers will have to win at home, despite being just 1-2 in the series and 1-3 against the Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But given the alternative of the season ending tonight, a Game 7 sounds like a real positive, though it's hard to know what to expect from the Hawks, who have done a tremendous job all series shooting the ball, attacking Indiana's defense, and generally making them a miserable basketball team. It will be up to whether Indiana's new found small ball will be enough to win another game if the Pacers hope to post their first back-to-back win in the series to close it out. Despite everything, the Pacers have life yet! So be ready to cheer on the blue and gold on Saturday.