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Desperation Suits Pacers

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 26, 2014

Let's try to get this straight. Yesterday, the Pacers had imploded, quit, were hopeless and heads were going to roll in the soon-to-arrive offseason.

Today they are revived, bonded, secure and once again the proud owner of homecourt advantage in their playoff series with Atlanta.

Monday? We'll see. The least predictable team in the NBA should have taught us by now not to jump to conclusions, although a lot of people have been pulling hamstrings doing just that in recent days, weeks and months.

Pitch forks and torches were put aside throughout central Indiana following their 91-88 win over the Hawks on Saturday, although they'll be on hand in case they're needed again after Game 5 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday. The playoffs bring that out of fans, and some media members, too. Still, all the anxiety, anger, rumors and microscopic examinations of body language that sprung from a 2-1 series deficit was unbecoming, considering the Pacers have been doing this playoff basketball thing since 1968.

No doubt, the Pacers have been fraying around the edges lately. But this we know: they tend to win when they believe it's absolutely necessary. In March, they split an eight-game stretch of play in which they failed to defeat a team with a winning record, but then beat Chicago on March 21. They lost their next two games, but then beat Miami. They lost their next three games, but beat Detroit. They lost their next three games, excluding the win at Milwaukee when the starters were held out, but then beat Oklahoma City.

Sense a pattern? Feeling good about themselves after winning their final two regular season games and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, they relaxed long enough to lose Game 1 of this series on their homecourt. The pitch forks and torches were out in full force. They came back to win Game 2 with a blistering third-quarter run, but lost Game 3 in Atlanta. Pitch forks and torches again.

Now they look like a contending team again. A three-point win over an eighth-seeded team isn't proof of much, beyond the fact you indeed have not imploded or given up, but there was something about Saturday's win that resembled those of November and December, when the Pacers were as good as any team in the NBA.

All along, the primary reason for the Pacers' late-season struggles has been the sub-standard of their two All-Stars, Roy Hibbert and Paul George. All of the other theories that have been offered are either foolish or minor by comparison.

Hibbert had his first respectable game in about a month on Saturday. Yeah, six points and three rebounds won't get his jersey number retired, but at least he showed some life and confidence during his 25 game minutes and his time on the bench. He didn't play in the fourth quarter for the third consecutive game, but was an enthusiastic witness to the Pacers' unlikely comeback.

“I've come to understand that the series may not have gone my way in terms of offense and defense, but I'm just going to do my part and hopefully put the team in a position to be able to finish well,” he told reporters in the postgame locker room. “So if I'm on the court or on the bench, I'm just going to support my teammates.”

There's hope for the Pacers in those sentences.

George, meanwhile, is back to being the MVP candidate of the early season. Playing the entire second half, and 44 minutes in all, he had his fourth straight double-double of the series: 24 points and 10 rebounds. Nobody has done that in a playoff series since LeBron James in 2009. George's three-pointer with 2:11 left gave the Pacers a one-point lead, which they never gave back. He also hounded Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague well enough to keep Teague from dominating the game, deleting the Hawks' best hope of winning.

David West was being David West, too, scoring 18 points and hitting a three-pointer on the possession following George's three that opened a four-point lead. It was just his fifth three-pointer of the season, and reminiscent of the game-winner he hit against Miami a month ago.

“We were in desperation mode,” West said. Of course George and West had to maintain drama by missing two foul shots late in the game, but it would have been too easy otherwise. This team isn't into easy. And that's what makes Monday's game dangerous. Homecourt advantage has been secured again and the fans are off the ledges. It's no longer a desperation mode.

Whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen.

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