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West Rises, Shines

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 16, 2014 at 1:27 AM

Do we all understand now? Have we finally figured out the Pacers?

They are not perplexing or unpredictable, as so many claim. They are as consistent as a sunrise. Or a sunset, depending on the situation. Times are good? They relax too much. Times are tough? They bear down enough.

That all was summarized in Thursday's 93-80 win at Washington, which sent them to the Eastern Conference Finals to face Miami for a third straight postseason. It was a game that summarized their series against the Wizards, and their season, too.

Prosperity weakens, danger strengthens. It's human nature, and the Pacers are as human as a team can be. They ran out to a comfortable lead in their quest for the top seed in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, and then let up and had to scramble at the finish line to retain it. So they let up when they opened their first-round series against Atlanta and had to scramble from behind to win it. So they let up again when they opened their second-round series against Washington, and had to scramble to take a 3-1 lead. So, of course they let up again and were embarrassed in a Game 5, which, of course, set them up nicely for Thursday's series-clincher on the road.

They're now 5-0 following losses in the postseason, and have won crucial Game 6s on the road in each series. That qualifies as a frightening omen for Game 1 against Miami on Sunday, but that's an issue for another day.

Desperation game victories don't come easily, though. They require a rock for the hard place … a metronome amid the tornado … an umbrella amid the thunderstorm … or whatever. They require a David West, who steps back whenever someone else takes a starring role but steps forward when the stage lights cause others to cover their eyes.

West scored 29 points in Thursday's win, 18 in the second half, and made their two biggest field goals after the Wizards had taken the lead. Each of the Pacers' other four starters had their moments, but he was the pack mule who carried the burden to the finish line. It was a performance reminiscent of the Game 6 win at Atlanta, when he scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.

“I just didn't want us to lose this game,” he said during his on-court postgame interview with ESPN's Doris Burke. “I told Coach, 'We're going to win this game, we're going to win this game.' I told (my teammates), 'If you get in trouble, find me at the top. I'm going to bring us home tonight.'”

The Pacers, who were disengaged in their 23-point Game 5 loss at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, were plugged in from the start on Thursday. They built a 15-point lead in the second quarter and led by 12 at the halftime – which, of course, provided a comfort zone on which to relax, which led to the Washington rally that gave it a lead on Bradley Beal's three-pointer with 8:30 left, which led to the Pacers' final burst.

Led by West, of course. His midrange jumper with 8:02 left regained the lead, and his midrange jumper at 7:03 stretched the lead to three, and the Wizards never got closer. He added two more insurance policies from midrange down the stretch, scoring 20 points in all from that area of the court.

“If we lost this game, I wanted it to be on me,” he said.

Instead, the Pacers are on their way home to prepare for Miami. The team that many had declared dead late in the regular season and at points in each of their first two playoff series has never looked more cohesive, more bonded. Roy Hibbert, who made national news for his “selfish dudes” quote following a regular season loss at Washington and for sulking on the bench in the second half of a homecourt loss to Atlanta, tweeted a photo of a scrunched-together, smiling team posing on the charter jet, with the hash tag “BandOfBrothers.”

“Everything's behind us,” coach Frank Vogel said.

West, though, remains the older brother who keeps everyone in line. He scolded Paul George for his sloppy behind-the-back pass in the third quarter that caused a turnover, and he remained the voice of reason amid the postgame celebration. While Lance Stephenson, whose 11 first half points were crucial to the victory, sang One Shining Moment in the shower, West was warning against yet another letdown against the Heat.

“Things aren't going to be easy and they're not scripted,” he said. “We know them, they know us. Again, it's going to come down to the details.”

Foremost among them: Take nothing for granted. Even when you're riding high. Because the defending champions won't wilt under the lights like the Hawks and Wizards did, and West can't be counted upon to prevent every calamity.

We think.

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