The grueling Pacers/Hawks first round series will come to its final stop in Indianapolis on Saturday after Indiana was able to grind out the Game 6 victory in Atlanta Thursday night.
It has gone back and forth all series long, and we will finally see the Game 7 Indiana ever so wanted — and needed — to attempt an escape to the next round. To survive, the Pacers needed to overcome a 29-point outing from Jeff Teague, who has been incredible for most of this series.
It almost wasn’t to be, however, and many will blame Frank Vogel’s controversial decision to stick with a starting lineup that included Roy Hibbert, the team’s struggling center who, due to match ups and his own bad play, seems to have no role in this series.
Things got off to a slow start, as the two teams played sloppy and traded baskets the first few minutes of the game. Atlanta then jumped out to a 15-5 lead after a series of offensive rebounds and 3-pointers, which prompted Vogel to make a Chris Copeland-for-Roy Hibbert substitution.
In under 7 minutes, Vogel’s decision was looking costly, as the Pacers offense was nonexistent early and the team was having trouble checking jumpshooters on the other end.
The switch to Copeland paid dividends almost immediately. Indiana scored on four of its next seven possessions, and the defense improved as well. By the end of the quarter, they were able to claw back and trail just 22-20. After scoring just 5 points in the 6:34 of the period that Hibbert played, Indiana poured in 15 over the next 5:26 while he sat. On the other end, they yield 15 point in Roy’s time, while only surrendering 7 after.
It was night and day.
Indiana continued its good play throughout the second quarter, with Paul George and Lance Stephenson handling the scoring load (each had 8 points in the quarter), and entered halftime leading 44-39, the first time in the series the Pacers have led at the half.
Hibbert remained on the bench to start the third quarter. It seemed as though Vogel had finally resigned himself to the fact that his team, against the Hawks anyway, performed better with it’s biggest player having the smallest role.
His choice proved wise. Even though Indiana struggled to hit shots early on, the offense soon corrected itself and the Pacers extended their lead to 9. They seemed in control — until Paul George was whistled for a charge, his fourth foul of the night.
Vogel was, rightfully, unwilling to risk his best player picking up a fifth foul so early, so George headed to the bench. His team would flounder as he watched from the sideline.
The Hawks would outscore the Pacers 19-7 over the final 5:09 of the third, taking the lead, 65-64, literally seconds after Vogel re-inserted Hibbert into the game with 53 seconds to play in the period.
This set up a fight to the finish in the final period as fans and sportwriters alike scratched their head trying to figure out what reason the coach had for going back to Hibbert.
The bigger, issue, however was how bad Indiana played without George on the floor. He was back to start the fourth, but the momentum was squarely with the Hawks, who held serve for the next six minutes, continually finding ways to score and maintain their lead.
Thats when David West came to the forefront. He hit a bucket, assisted on another, got to the line for two free throws, and hit a big-time jumper. That last shot cut Atlanta’s lead to 1, and came on an assist from George Hill. Then, on the other end, West came up with a huge steal before his buddy Hill came down and drove to the hoop for a driving lay in.
Indiana had the lead, 85-84, and wouldn’t trail again.
With some big defensive stops, another bucket by West for good measure, and some clutch free throws by Paul George, Indiana accomplished its goal. They would escape Atlanta with a win and head home to live another day.
Indiana fought for home-court advantage all season long, and now that they must take advantage of it. In the six games of the series thus far, both home teams have only won one of the three games they hosted.
As they proved late, West and George — with a dash of Hill — were the game’s heroes. Both finished with 24 points, while West also added 11 rebounds and 6 assists. George tallied 8 rebounds and 3 assists.
For Atlanta, it was Teague time. The Indiana native recorded a playoff career-high 29 points, but his efforts in closing out his home town team fell short. Lou Williams also had a nice impact off the bench with 16 points, and Paul Millsap struggled his way, on 3-for-14 shooting, to 16 of his own (though he did record 18 rebounds, including 5 on the offensive end).
Game 7 in Indianapolis is set to be another hard fought game from both teams just like Game 6 was in Atlanta. We don’t often see Game 7s in the first round of the playoffs — especially between a No. 1 and No. 8 seed — so we must enjoy this one. Whoever wins this will go on to face the Washington Wizards, which are coming off a 4-1 mopping of the Bulls, in the conference semi finals.
May the best team win.