Steady Hands of West, Hill Lead Pacers to Victory

by Wheat Hotchkiss | @Wheat_Hotchkiss

May 2, 2014 | 1:30 a.m.

ATLANTA – With 3:16 to play on Thursday night in Game 6, things were looking bleak for the Pacers.

The Hawks had scored on four straight possessions during an 8-2 run that gave the home team an 84-79 lead. Jeff Teague, the former Pike High School star, had scored the last four of his game-high 29 points to put his hometown team on the brink of elimination. Philips Arena was rocking like it was the heyday of Dominique Wilkins.

But just three minutes and sixteen seconds away from seeing their year end far earlier than they’d planned, the tide of the Pacers' season turned, thanks to the steady hands of David West and George Hill.

For much of Thursday night, Paul George and Lance Stephenson carried the Blue-and-Gold. They knocked down jumpers, got to the rim, and played with the effort and enthusiasm of a couple of 23-year-old emerging stars.

But with the season on the line, it was West who carried the team to victory, with Hill making several big shots to earn a nomination for Best Supporting Player.

After Teague’s jumper at 3:16 pushed the Hawks’ lead to five, West drew a foul on Paul Millsap at the other end. West, who had some uncharacteristic misses at the free throw line in Games 4 and 5, knocked down both shots to cut the margin to three.

On the other end, West stripped the ball out of Pero Antic’s hands. While an antsy Stephenson called for the Pacers to push the ball up the court, Hill decided against it and got the team into an offensive set. He eventually found West for an open 19-footer to cut the lead to one.

After Antic missed a 3-pointer on the other end, Hill again calmly brought the ball up the court and called for a pick-and-roll with West on the right wing. When the defense shifted in West’s direction, Hill drove along the baseline and laid the ball in to give the Pacers the lead.

The Hawks would tie the game a few seconds later, but West would again come through in the clutch, hitting a driving six-footer with 46.5 seconds remaining to give the Pacers the lead for good. George and Hill both hit key free throws down the stretch and West capped the scoring with one last layup in the final seconds to lift Indiana to a 95-88 win and force Game 7 on Saturday night in Indianapolis.

After the game, the Pacers locker room was singing the praises of their veteran leaders, particularly West, who headed to the postgame press conference after accumulating 24 points (12 of them in the fourth quarter), 11 rebounds, and six assists.

“Nothing fazes him,” George said of the 33-year-old heart and soul of the Pacers locker room. “I knew when the game was tight like that, to have him on your side, it gives you confidence that we (were) going to go out and finish that game off. He just made plays after plays to give us a cushion to win that game.”

Notice George’s subtle modification of the standard “play after play” line. “Plays after plays.” Seems about right.

Added head coach Frank Vogel: "When a team is making a run like that and you're dealing with an eight seed trying to knock off a one seed in their building and the place is erupting on every play, to have somebody out there with that level and composure just really settles everybody down. He's our rock. There's no other way to put it."

As for Hill, he finished with 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting, but it seemed like nearly every one of his makes came at a critical juncture. Take, for example, his only points of the first half.

The Pacers seemed poised to take a multi-possession lead into halftime, up five points with Hill on the free throw line with 19 seconds remaining. But after Hill missed both shots, Lou Williams hit a 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds remaining to cut Indiana’s lead to two.

Instead of lowering his head, the “hometown hero” took the inbounds from Ian Mahinmi, raced down the court, and knocked down a 28-footer as the buzzer sounded.

“Anything can happen,” Hill said of the shot after the game. “One shot can turn the whole series around, so I was just trying to make a play.”

Hill seemingly turned the series around several times over on Thursday night. Late in the third quarter, after the Hawks tied the game at 61 with a 13-4 run, Hill knocked down a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession to briefly stem the tide.

It was also Hill who gave the Pacers their first lead of the fourth quarter, posting up on the left block and hitting a right-handed hook shot with 5:23 remaining.

And then, of course, there was his go-ahead layup at 1:58.

The same player who has at times been critiqued for his lack of aggression offensively (and was roundly criticized locally for his play in the weeks leading up to the playoffs) hit some of the biggest shots of the Pacers’ season.

“I feel like I missed a couple easy layups and things like that that didn’t fall my way,” Hill said. “But no matter make or miss, (I just tried) to take the shots that they were giving me and being aggressive.”

To stave off elimination on the road, you need contributions from up and down the roster. Everyone who played Thursday night had a hand in the Pacers’ victory.

George and Stephenson were brilliant at times offensively. C.J. Watson scored seven points in the first half. Chris Copeland helped space the floor and create driving lanes. Ian Mahinmi had a couple blocks and a few huge offensive rebounds (including one that set up West’s game-winning runner). Even the much-maligned Roy Hibbert had a big block on Teague at one point in the fourth quarter.

But down the stretch, it was the West and Hill – the two least flashy members of the Pacers’ starting five – who played the biggest part in crunch time.

“Those two guys are incredible,” Copeland said. “And the way they played tonight, they carried us over the hump when it didn’t look great. And that’s big (when) you’ve got guys like that that know how to keep their composure and go out and get a win for you.”

More than anything, it was Hill and West’s composure that set the tone for Indiana’s come-from-behind victory. Whether it was West getting in George’s ear and whispering “me and you” during the fourth quarter (the duo combined for 21 points in the final stanza, matching the entire Hawks’ team), or Hill calmly getting Indiana into its offensive sets in the final minutes, both were steadying influences on their teammates.

“Just riding the wave out,” Hill said of their attitude. “We know they’re going to make plays. We have to do the same (things) on the offensive end, make or miss. But (we were) just telling guys to just keep believing, keep having faith.”

Now, the series shifts back to Indianapolis for Game 7 on Saturday night. The Pacers live on to fight for at least two more days, they hope for several more weeks. If Game 7 comes down to the final minutes, don’t be surprised if the Pacers turn back to the same two players who helped them force the game in the first place.

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