Gritty Pacers Get Back To Conference Finals

by Wheat Hotchkiss | @Wheat_Hotchkiss

May 16, 2014 | 1:45 a.m.

WASHINGTON – After all of that, the Pacers are back in the Eastern Conference Finals.

After two months with so many ups and downs that comparing it to a rollercoaster ride seems like the world's biggest understatement, the Pacers are right where they wanted to be along: with homecourt advantage as they square off against Miami with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.

But Indiana’s path back to the NBA’s version of the Final Four was far from the route anyone expected. Suddenly, the Pacers — owners of the best home record in the NBA during the regular season — can't be beaten on the road.

They held off a feisty Wizards team for a 93-80 win in Game 6 Thursday night at the Verizon Center. They also prevailed in Games 3 and 4 in Washington. And in Games 4 and 6 in Atlanta.

The same Pacers squad that closed the regular season by losing their last seven road games — and 10 of their last 12 — in which their entire starting five played, is suddenly unstoppable away from the friendly confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

No doubt, they’ve laid a few eggs at home, but when the going gets tough, the Pacers have excelled.

And when the going gets toughest, David West leads the way.

The Wizards opened the fourth quarter Thursday night with an 11-2 run to take a 74-73 lead with 8:30 to play. That’s when the 11-year veteran took over, hitting an 18-foot jumper to take back the lead and a 19-footer on the next possession. For good measure, he added a couple more jump shots to help put the game away down the stretch.

Just like he did in Atlanta, when he scored 12 points in the fourth quarter to help Indiana stave off elimination, West came up huge on the road in a Game 6.

This time, the Pacers weren't facing elimination, but West said they still played like it was an elimination game — "This was our Game 7," he said afterwards. He finished Thursday night with a game-high 29 points, six rebounds, and four assists.

“David West was just being a veteran,” Paul George said after the game. “Taking control of this team.”

Added Roy Hibbert: “He’s a veteran player who’s been through it all…He exudes a lot of confidence that’s contagious.”

That confidence spread up and down the roster in crunch time on Thursday, as the Pacers buckled down after West’s big buckets and seized control of the game. George took a charge from Trevor Ariza with the Pacers clinging to a three-point lead with 5:22 to play, setting off a sequence where Indiana prevented Washington from scoring on nine consecutive possessions, forcing four turnovers in that stretch.

On the other end, nearly all the Pacers' starters got into the scoring act. George got to the basket for a layup with 5:05 to play. At 3:44, George Hill drove under the basket and smartly turned back around when he realized no defender had followed him to the other side, nailing a short jumper to push the lead to nine. Lance Stephenson cut to the rim with 2:06 remaining to push the lead to double digits.

Just like that, the game was all but over, and ESPN’s production crews could start prepping their promos for Pacers-Heat III.

“We’re tough,” George said. “We’re experienced. We’ve been together for three or four years now, we’ve been in the playoffs for three or four years now. So we know what to expect. We know teams are going to go on runs. We know how to gain composure. But most importantly, we know to just not panic.”

If David West is the toughest player on the Pacers roster, Lance Stephenson isn’t far behind. So it was fitting that Stephenson helped West set the tone for a team performance that head coach Frank Vogel said was fueled by “tremendous grit and toughness.”

West started the night by scoring seven of his team’s first 13 points, but it was Stephenson’s aggression that signified that the Pacers were on the attack. After a lackluster performance in Game 5 – the first time Stephenson failed to record a rebound in 89 games this season – the Brooklyn-bred guard came out with a different mindset in Game 6.

Stephenson got to the rim and scored four times in the first 10:40, and continued to attack throughout the night, finishing with 17 points, five rebounds, eight assists, and just one turnover.

“I know if I’m being aggressive that everybody on the team is going to be aggressive,” Stephenson said. “So I had to do that tonight. I wanted to win so bad.”

Hibbert concurred, stating that it was Stephenson’s play that was pivotal to the Pacers’ ability to hold off the Wizards down the stretch.

“Lance made some strong plays to the paint,” Hibbert said. “…He was playing with a lot of energy and smart. He’s at his best when he wants to get to the paint.”

It was West and Stephenson leading the charge on Thursday night, but all of the Pacers’ starters came up huge over the course of the series. Hibbert erupted for 28 points in Game 2. George’s 39-point masterpiece fueled a comeback victory in Game 4. And Hill, the forgotten man on the starting five, reached double figures in four contests and caused headaches for Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall on the defensive end.

When the media has turned on the Pacers following their inconsistent performances over the past couple months, their core group has banded together. The starting five has bonded over the fact that each of them feels like they have at some point in their career been overlooked – George was the only lottery pick of the bunch, and even he went 10th overall, behind players like Wesley Johnson, Ekpe Udoh, and Al-Farouq Aminu.

As the Pacers slowly shifted from earning near-unanimous praise to being highly-scrutinized, the negative attention on the team seems to have restored a chip on their collective shoulder that gives them an extra edge.

“With all the adversity, we kept pulling together,” West said. “Guys just showed unbelievable grit, unbelievable toughness, and we got through a tough, tough series.”

But despite the Pacers’ improved play over the last two weeks, the Heat likely remain the prohibitive favorites to return to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year. Indiana needed 13 games to get past Atlanta and Washington, while Miami disposed of Charlotte and Brooklyn in nine. LeBron James may not be the MVP this year, but he’s still probably the best player in the world, and he’s averaging 30 points per game and shooting over 56 percent from the field in the playoffs.

But according to Stephenson, the Pacers want to be underestimated.

“I think we like being the underdogs,” Stephenson said. “We like when everybody’s talking about us. I think it makes our game a little bit better. It makes us want to go out and play harder…Everybody’s talking about us and trying to bring us down, but we stay together as a unit, stay poised in the locker room, and it just makes us stronger.”

The Pacers’ next step is their toughest one yet — West admitted “it’s not going to be easy” — but they remain confident that they can get through anything if they play for each other.

“We have a goal,” Hill said. “No matter the ups and downs, we know what our goals are. We know that we’re staying together through the thick and thin, and we’re just going to do whatever it takes to try to continue to get one step closer."

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