With Season on the Line, Pacers Ready to Fight

by Wheat Hotchkiss | @Wheat_Hotchkiss

May 1, 2014

ATLANTA – It all comes down to this. If the Pacers don’t find a way to win in Game 6, a season that has seen so many highs for the Pacers franchise could come to an unanticipated early end tonight in Atlanta.

Elimination games are the ultimate test. How do you respond when your back is against the wall? Last year, the Miami Heat proved themselves as worthy champions by winning three times with their season on the line.

This Pacers squad has always been a team that talks about approaching every game the same way. In the regular season, they wanted to win every game, whether it was a nationally-televised showdown with the Heat or a Tuesday night game in Milwaukee. In the playoffs the past few years, they’ve consistently preached taking it one game at a time, one possession at a time.

But with their season on the line on Thursday night, Pacers point guard George Hill says the time has come to take a different approach.

“It has to change,” Hill said at Thursday’s shootaround. “Now it’s either win or go home for us. The mentality has to be back against the wall, trying to do whatever it takes to try to get a Game 7.”

It may come as a surprise to many that the Pacers are in this position so early in the playoffs. It has been a surprising first round across the league – the Oklahoma City Thunder and probable MVP Kevin Durant find themselves in a similar position on Thursday night, needing to win Game 6 on the road to extend their season.

Last year’s team didn’t exactly waltz through the first couple rounds – they needed six games to dispatch of both the Hawks and the Knicks before advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals – but the Pacers didn’t face elimination until Game 6 against the Heat.

For All-Star forward Paul George, the difference between last year’s team and this year’s squad was almost entirely mental approach.

“I think last postseason we were just playing freely,” George said. “Nobody expected us to – they expected us to beat Atlanta, but they didn’t expect us to go on and play well, so there was no pressure on us. We were in the playoffs playing the hardest we could, just playing for one another. And this time around, we have a lot of pressure, we earned the number one seed, so our expectations are a lot higher. We just haven’t done a great job of playing with that kind of pressure.”

This time around, it has been the Hawks that have been playing freely and without pressure. The pressure only increases when you’re facing elimination. But instead of taking a doom and gloom approach, Hill said he felt it was most important for the team to “have fun out there” in Game 6.

Head coach Frank Vogel remained coy about what adjustments, if any, he planned to make for Game 6. Many in the media have suggested Vogel should start a smaller lineup, with either Luis Scola or Chris Copeland playing in place of center Roy Hibbert, but Vogel — who has not changed his starting five for anything other than injuries in nearly two full seasons — has said he won’t reveal his plans until game time.

Regardless of who is on the floor, Vogel said the main emphasis on Thursday night will be execution.

“We have confidence we can win anywhere when we play our best, but we’ve got to play our best,” Vogel said. “(Atlanta is) playing at a really, really high level. We’ve got to make sure we’re sharp with our ball movement and our defensive coverages.”

The Hawks’ offense has given the Pacers fits with their deep arsenal of 3-point shooters and overall team speed. Atlanta is a team capable of going on a big run. They outscored Indiana 30-16 in the third quarter of Game 1 to pull away for a win. In Game 5, they hit nine 3-pointers in the second quarter (five of them coming from backup forward Mike Scott) en route to a 41-19 quarter that blew the game open.

“(If) we throw out six minutes of that second quarter, we’ve got ourselves a 20-point win,” George said about the Game 5 loss. “…We’ve just got to do a better job. When they go on a spree or a streak like that, we’ve got to mix something up to give them a different look.”

Vogel said that when the Hawks go on spurts like that, the main culprit has been Indiana’s transition defense. Atlanta hits a shot, the Pacers miss one and then fail to get back on the other end and give up an open look. If that cycle repeats itself two or three times, that’s enough for the Hawks to go on a 10-0 or 12-2 spurt.

“You’ve got to be alert at all times,” Vogel said. “This team is obviously extremely explosive with what they’re capable of at the 3-point line and the speed that they present on the break.

“There’s a very, very small margin for error.”

Six games into this series, the Pacers know how the Hawks are going to attack them. If they give up another big spurt tonight, that could very well spell the end of their season.

But with everything on the line, Vogel said he has full confidence that his team won’t die easy.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Vogel said. “And I expect our guys to come out swinging.”

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