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Notebook: Pacers Prepare for New Series

by Scott Agness | @ScottAgness

May 4, 2014

The Pacers have moved on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals after winning two straight games over the Hawks to take the first round series, 4-3. Although that series went longer than most expected, with eighth-seeded Atlanta pushing them to the brink of elimination, the Pacers stuck with their recent mantra, “Nobody said it would be easy.”

Players began repeating it before the postseason. As Lance Stephenson slipped on his game shoes Saturday afternoon, written on the right side in blue ink was that phrase with the word champion next to it.

“Getting to where we want to and getting a ‘chip is not going to be easy,” he said. “Just got to be focused and don’t let nothing get to us and stay at it as a group and we’ll be alright.”

The Pacers, who were a league-best 35-6 at home during the regular season, got off on the wrong note by losing Game 1. From there, they alternated wins before grabbing command of the series in a critical Game 7.

“It's never a cakewalk,” Roy Hibbert said after playing his best performance in a month on Saturday night. “Just because it's an eight-seed doesn't mean that they're not going to give it their all. They have nothing to lose."

Coach Frank Vogel brought up to his team that the Boston Celtics were pushed to seven games in each of their first two rounds – the first against the Hawks, ironically – before winning the NBA Title in 2008.

Paul George explained what it meant to him: "It's a process. Sweeping a team is a luxury, it's ideal but it's not going to happen sometimes. Many teams have been drawn out to a Game 7 to start their playoff run off. It's one game at a time. That's what it comes down to.”

The Pacers open Round 2 against the Washington Wizards at home, a place that has been very favorable in this head-to-head matchup. Although they’ve won 12 consecutive games over the Wizards at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, George says that doesn’t carry much weight at this point. It’s a whole new game.

“You throw it all out because they’re playing beyond what they were playing in the regular season,” he said. “They really took another step in the postseason so we got to have the confidence to know that we’ve been able to have success against those guys but, again, they’re playing well right now.”

Hibbert Regains Confidence

Roy Hibbert was looking irritated, downtrodden, and without confidence after being a non-factor through the first six games of the playoffs. His production had dropped dating all the way back to the All-Star break, and some questioned if he’d ever regain his form before the year concluded.

He did just that in Game 7 Saturday night, hitting 4-of-5 shots to lead the Pacers with eight points after one quarter of play. After seeing the ball go through the hoop, a pep in his stepped returned and it carried over to the defensive end, where he rejected five shots on the night.

“We need him to go far this year and I have all the trust in him that he’ll perform like that for the rest of the playoffs,” backup center Ian Mahinmi said of Hibbert.

After Hibbert’s showing, he said there was never any conversation with Coach Vogel about whether he’d be pulled from the starting lineup, as many fans and media folks requested.

“(Frank’s) a stat guy and our plus-minus as starters was +5."

Hibbert said he didn’t change anything in his game-day routine. The stakes riding on the game was motivation enough.

"No, it was just Game 7,” he said. “You just got to come with an attitude 'You have to win.'”

"You have to lay everything on the line. Despite how you played beforehand, you just got to go out there and win Game 7 or go home. We've been through that before. I'm sure next year (Atlanta will) learn from that."

"Last year hurt, but we carried it over to today."

For Hibbert, maybe it was a message and a fresh beat from a new song that helped his resurgence. All day Saturday, he was blasting “Believe Me,” by rappers Lil Wayne and Drake.

A couple of the lines:

“I'm the only one that get the job done
I don't know a (person) that can cover for me”

“I'm that (person), boy they love me in the streets
I'm not tryna find nobody else to beat
I'm the one they come to see because they all
Believe me”

That’s now his playoff song and he’ll continue to tune out the outside world and get locked in pregame moving forward.

Mahinmi’s Impact Beyond the Stat Sheets

With just a glance at the stat sheet, Ian Mahinmi’s impact in the Pacers’ first-round series appears to be minimal. He averaged 1.6 points and 3.4 rebounds per game in less than 18 minutes per night. He swatted 12 shots, more than any of his teammates — David West had 11, but he also played nearly two times the number of minutes as Mahinmi.

In the big picture, Mahinmi made his presence felt in an unusual series that needed solid play from him.

“It’s playoff time,” Mahinmi said after Game 7. “You can’t look at the stats. I’m a role player and I never look at the stats. I always go hard and I try to be a defensive presence. I try to have my teammates back and be a shot-blocker. It might not show on the stats but I know that my defense was pretty solid.”

Indiana ended the first half on a 14-2 run, and thus had an 11-point lead at intermission. More to that, Mahinmi kept the momentum on their side by stuffing Jeff Teague at the rim with his left hand. He saw Teague coming down the lane and knew they were going to meet at the rim.

“Overall, I think it was just a good play to end the half,” he said. “We had such a good run and that gave us great momentum.”

A photo of his rejection was pinned up on the dry-erase board after the game, which drew laughter.

More than anything, Mahinmi played aggressive and with heart that was clear to everyone watching. With Hibbert’s ineffective play through the first six games, Mahinmi was sure to elevate his game.

“It was not only Roy, but their style of play had a spread out offense so it was better for me because I’m more mobile,” he said.

“We need rim protection,” said Vogel prior to Game 7. “Their most dangerous attack is [Paul] Millsap and [Jeff] Teague getting to the rim or the free throw line. We need 7-footers out there protecting the rim.”

Stephenson to Appeal Technical Foul

Lance Stephenson is known for his free-flowing, amped style of play. However, his burst of energy cost him a technical foul 63 seconds into the fourth quarter on Saturday. After eyeing official Tony Brothers because of a no-call on the offensive end, he darted full speed after the rebound and was T'd up after bowling over a Hawks player.

“I was trying to hit the ball out of his hands to get it to George Hill but the ref probably thought I was trying to smack him or something,” he explained. "I don’t know. I don’t think I deserved a tech though.”

The technical was Stephenson’s third of the postseason, setting him back $7,000. Because there wasn’t much there and it seems likely Brothers trying to prevent a situation, Stephenson has already spoken to his agent about it and hopes to have it reviewed by the league and subsequently rescinded. It’s important because after a player picks up his seventh in the postseason, he is automatically suspended for the next game.

“I haven’t talked to Larry [Bird] and Kevin [Pritchard],” Vogel said. “I think we should (appeal it). I think the officials did the right thing trying to just make sure that everybody stays under control. After looking at it, I don’t know if a technical is warranted.”

SACRIFICES

As the Pacers played the Hawks, a team Vogel called the most difficult team to prepare for this postseason because of their spread-5 formation, adjustments had to be made. In the final two games, Evan Turner didn’t see the floor and Luis Scola didn’t play a meaningful minute. The coaching staff changed up the rotation to play a lineup that put them in the best position to succeed against the Hawks.

“On this team, nobody complained,” Hibbert said. "They went small, some guys didn't play, some guys didn't play as much as they wanted to play, some guys got benched, other guys stepped up. We're a team, despite what everybody said and how they feel individually about not playing or whatever, you sacrifice for the team."

Vogel said after practice on Sunday that he anticipates the rotation returning to what it was to end the season.

“Evan and Luis will be back in the rotation with a much greater role in this series,” said Vogel.

Game 7 Rating:

The seventh episode of the Pacers and Hawks first-round matchup averaged 3.5 million viewers on TNT, SI.com's Richard Deitsch reported.

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