Game 6 Will Measure How Much Pacers Have Grown

by Wheat Hotchkiss | @Wheat_Hotchkiss

May 30, 2014

MIAMI – On June 3, 2013, the Pacers’ season came to an end when they fell to the Heat in Miami in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Nearly one year later, the Pacers find themselves in nearly the exact same position: needing to win a game at American Airlines Arena to stave off elimination.

That 99-76 loss last June has fueled the Blue-and-Gold for each and every one of the next 361 days.

It instilled in All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert the urge to push a little bit harder in their offseason workouts. It impacted Larry Bird and the front office’s roster moves over the summer, bringing in veterans Luis Scola and C.J. Watson to bolster the bench. It gave head coach Frank Vogel and veteran forward David West a clear goal for the regular season: to do everything in their power to gain the number one seed so that they could play a potential Game 7 against the Heat at home.

Over those 361 days, so much has changed. Or maybe, so much has stayed the same. Even though they were able to get the top seed, the Pacers still find themselves having to win in Miami to keep their season alive.

After falling into a 3-1 hole in the best-of-seven series, Indiana pulled out a 93-90 win in Game 5 on Wednesday night in Indianapolis. But winning in Miami, where they’ve dropped six straight games dating back to Game 2 of last year’s conference finals, is a task on another level.

In Game 7 last year, the Heat pulled away from Indiana early, outscoring the Pacers 33-16 in the second quarter. LeBron James scored 32 points on the night. Dwyane Wade added 21. On the other end, Miami forced Indiana into 21 turnovers. As the final seconds ticked away, the Pacers were sullen spectators as the Heat celebrated their third straight trip to the NBA Finals with their home crowd.

What can Indiana take away from that experience?

“Just knowing what it feels like, knowing what type of pressure they can bring and the level that they can elevate themselves to, we’ve just got to be prepared for it tonight,” said David West, who scored 14 points but also had a team-high six turnovers in Game 7 last year.

“We’ve got to be ready to go into this thing willing to fight and do what we have to do to get out of here with a win.”

No one took the loss last year harder than Paul George. George scored just seven points on 2-for-9 shooting and fouled out with 7:43 left in the game. George said afterward that he was fatigued from the grueling nature of the Pacers’ deep playoff run, the first time the then-23-year-old forward had played in the conference finals.

George has said that the loss in Miami was a constant source of motivation for him over the summer and credited that moment as partially responsible for his blistering start to the 2014 season. This year, he is determined not to repeat last year’s performance.

“I won’t allow myself to be worn out, be tired,” George said. “I think I’ve grown with mental toughness to keep pushing.”

George is, in fact, coming off one of the strongest performances of his playoff career. He was sensational down the stretch in Indiana’s Game 5 win, scoring 37 points, pouring in 31 after halftime and 21 in the fourth quarter.

George said the Pacers don’t need him to replicate that performance to win, but he does plan to continue attacking in Game 6.

“I’m going to come out really aggressive,” George said. “I know from last game, a lot of attention will be on me on perimeter catches. So I’m going to tell all my guys to be ready, be in a spot where I can find you, but I’m going to come out looking to score and be aggressive.”

The Pacers know that they face an uphill battle. Just eight teams in NBA history have ever rallied back from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series. And the Heat have looked virtually unstoppable at American Airlines Arena, where they won both Games 3 and 4 by 12 points.

Asked if the Pacers would need their best performance of the year to win Game 6 in Miami, center Roy Hibbert quickly answered in the affirmative: “Yeah. We’ve got to play as perfect as we can.”

George said that the Heat players seem to gain an extra gear when playing in front of their home crowd, saying that it particularly seems to fuel four-time MVP LeBron James and 10-time All-Star Ray Allen. Vogel agreed that the Heat are an even better team at home, noting that Miami increases its defensive pressure and tends to create more transition opportunities when playing at home.

For those reasons, George believes that the Pacers cannot afford to fall into a deep hole like they did in both Games 3 and 4.

“It’s just too hard to come (back from) a 15-point deficit to beat this team in their arena,” George said. “So this game’s got to be close. If it’s not close, we’ve got to be up big.”

So much has changed over the last 361 days, but the core of this matchup has remained the same. Both teams rely on the same key players. And despite the Pacers finishing with a better record in the regular season, pundits and oddsmakers still view Indiana as significant underdogs to the two-time defending champions.

The Pacers, for their part, have embraced that underdog status.

“I don’t think we have any pressure,” West said. “We’ve just got to come out, play loose. … We can’t be tight, we can’t be tentative. We’ve got to play the game the right way.”

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