by Mark Montieth | email@example.com
June 1, 2013, 7:15 PM
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David West was contagious. That was a bad thing. And a good thing, too.
Reeling from a temperature that surpassed 100 degrees in the morning, his voice clearly affected by his clogged head, West willed the Pacers to a victory in the franchise's biggest game in at least nine years, setting up the biggest Game 7 since they met Chicago in the championship game of the Eastern Conference finals in 1998.
Paul George hit 11-of-19 shots for the second consecutive game and scored 28 points, going toe-to-toe with LeBron James, who scored 29. Roy Hibbert continued his stellar postseason with 24 points and 11 rebounds, and made a memorable defensive play that drew a technical foul from James.
It was West, however, who had the biggest impact on Saturday's 91-77 Game 6 victory – first with mental toughness, last with crucial baskets that saved his teammates from a fourth-quarter collapse.
“It's all heart; that guy is all heart,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “And it's contagious. I don't really have the words for it, to be honest with you. His tank was on E from the time he came into the building this morning.”
West was not made available to the media afterward, probably because the franchise was concerned he would spread germs to reporters and make them ill. No, wait, that couldn't have been it. They wanted him to get home as quickly as possible, and he surely didn't feel like talking to anyone. The team did distribute a prepared statement from West, however:
“I wasn't 100 percent, but I had to play,” he said. “We've come too far for me to not play. I'm not feeling good now, although this win helps. I'm sure I will be better tomorrow and I'll be ready for Monday.”
Monday in Miami, the Pacers will try to upset the top-seeded and defending champion Heat. One could argue that they have nothing to lose and can play loose, but they don't feel that way. Not after taking the Heat to the absolute limit in this series, and already having beaten them five times this season. Not after hanging with the Heat even when they're not playing very well. Not when Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh seem to have so little left, leaving holes in the Heat lineup.
“I think the pressure is on both teams,” George Hill said. “Nobody wants to lose. I'm sure everybody's going to leave everything out there.”
West set the example for that in Game 6. He passed up a few shots in the first half, and missed the seven he took. Vogel gave him his normal late first-quarter break late in the first period, and sent him back into the game three minutes into the second. Vogel tried to remove him again later in the half when West was obviously laboring, but was turned away.
“I gotta get you out. You have nothing tonight,” Vogel said.
“No, leave me in. I'm all right. I'm good,” West replied.
He was better than good in the second half, when the Pacers threatened to ruin the 17-point lead they had built in the third period. West re-entered the fourth quarter with 9:14 left, with just three points on 1-of-8 shooting to his name. He proceeded to hit 4-of-6 shots, grab four rebounds and block a shot the rest of the way.
He drove the lane for a left-handed layup on his first possession, icing Miami's 7-0 run. He hit a 17-foot jumper two minutes later. Still later, with the Pacers' lead at seven, he blocked Joel Anthony's shot underneath Miami's basket, gathered in the rebound and was fouled with 5:05 left. When play resumed after an official timeout, he made a nifty one-handed stab of George Hill's bullet pass to the high post to avoid a turnover. He then missed a shot in the lane, but got his own rebound and dunked it for a 77-68 lead. He added one more field goal, an 18-footer with 2:51 left to extend the Pacers' lead to 14.
“He's a team-first kind of guy,” Hill said. “I don't think this was a game he wanted to miss. If his heart was out of his body, he'd still try to play. That's just the mentality David West brings.
“We knew he was going to contribute. No matter if he wasn't scoring, his voice and presence was enough. We need him out on the court, and we know that.”
Hibbert has hit an absolute peak in this series, averaging 22.8 points and 10.8 rebounds. George, despite having to chase James around the court, has averaged 21.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and led the team in assists, 5.3.
West? He's been merely steady. He averaged 17.1 points in the regular season, is averaging 16 in the postseason to date, and 17 against the Heat.
West, however, remains the team's most important player. Because he's contagious.