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Pacers Dig Out

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 23, 2014 | 12:15 a.m.

Some strategic adjustments were effective and their shooting improved, but the primary reason for the Pacers' EKG-reviving victory over Atlanta on Tuesday couldn't have been more basic.

They were in deep, uh, stuff.

So deep that fans were questioning their heart. So deep that lineup changes were debated in the media. So deep that all the good that had come out of November and December seemed more like a dream than a reality. So deep that national media types were speculating on who their next coach might be. That deep.

“We were against the wall,” said Luis Scola, whose 20 points off the bench were just one of the crucial elements to the 101-85 victory. “We had to win. This is playoffs, we down one, if you don't have it now, when you going to have it?”

They found it in the third quarter. Already down 1-0 and trailing by four points at halftime of Game 2, it seemed as good a time as any to rediscover their mojo. A 31-13 blitz opened a 14-point lead that reached 27 points midway through the final period, before starters were pulled and the celebration began.

The city can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for a few days. Going down 2-0 on their homecourt would have been disastrous to their immediate future, and only would have ramped up speculation about their longterm future. Now they're 1-1 going back to Atlanta. That qualifies as a tie, mathematically, but as far as David West is concerned they still trail because Atlanta has homecourt advantage.

“We're still down in the series,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

The Pacers recently have conditioned their fans not to get carried away over one impressive win, but this one brought hope. Roy Hibbert managed only six points and four rebounds, and played just seven minutes in the second half, but offered a post presence that drew the Hawks' defense and was an active cheerleader on the bench. George Hill, allowed to move to his favored off-guard position by the insertion of C. J. Watson, began attacking the basket and scored all 15 of his points in the second half. Scola, who hit 9-of-14 shots, led a bench effort that contributed 38 points and 15 rebounds.

And then there was Paul George.

Maligned for his shot selection in Game 1, when he hit just 6-of-18 attempts, he left no questions this time. He finished with 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting – including 5-of-7 three-pointers – 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals and just one turnover. He also hounded Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague much of the game and helped limit him to 14 points – half of what he had scored on Saturday.

It was a performance reminiscent of last season's postseason, when he cast himself as an MVP-caliber player, and a reflection of a renewed focus. He had put up 500 shots on the practice court following Monday's team workout. A desperate measure resulting from a desperate time.

“We put our print on this game in the third quarter, which we’ve done in November, December and January,” George said. “We got back to that. I thought we did a great job of really just locking in, coming out in the second half, on what we need to do.”

George provided the game's peak moment at the end of the third period, when Scola rebounded Paul Millsap's missed three-pointer with 4.4 seconds left and passed out to George, who dribbled upcourt and let fly from 28 feet at the buzzer to give the Pacers a 79-65 lead.

What happened after that was just as important. George let out a soul-cleansing scream while looking at the Atlanta bench – payback for some of the words that had been directed his way in the first half. He continued screaming while looking into the stands, where fans stood and raised the decibel level to heights unheard since last year's Eastern Conference finals. And then some of his teammates ran to the other end of the court to celebrate with him before heading back to the Pacers' bench.

“We’re together,” George said. “We’re together. If that’s what it took for everyone to understand how close this team is, that’s what it was. We’ve got each other’s back and that’s exactly what it felt like.”

Added Hibbert: “Paul was tired of people (on the opposing team) talking to him. They woke up a sleeping (giant).”

There were no reports of a fiery halftime talk, or any other form of artificial resuscitation for the Pacers. Just some tweaks to the offense and to the substitution patterns, and – most of all – the knowledge that they were in danger of becoming known for one of the most monumental collapses in NBA history if they fell behind 2-0 heading to Atlanta.

We went back to the way we've been playing all year long,” Scola said. “This is us, and not what we saw the last month. If we are able to realize who we are and we play this way every time, good things will happen.”

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