David West celebrates the Paces’ victory in Game 6 Thursday in Atlanta. (Icon SMI)
Adjustments were made, lineups and rotations altered, some high-profile players benched.
Amid all the change, however, the Pacers still had their rock. Ultimately, that is what mattered most.
David West imposed his will on the game down the stretch, scoring 12 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter as the Pacers finished Game 6 on a 16-4 run to pull out a 95-88 victory in Atlanta and force Game 7 Saturday at 5:30 p.m. in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“It was a little different, with the lineups we had but we still were able to play our style and our brand of basketball,” said Paul George, who scored nine of his 24 in the fourth. “David West just did a great job late in the game of shouldering a lot of us scoring and moving the ball and making plays for us. He did a great job of putting us on his back.
“It’s good to have the big fella. He’s special, very underrated. It’s good to have a veteran like that on this team.”
When George went to the bench with four fouls with 5:09 left in the third period, Jeff Teague took full advantage of his freedom and scored 12 points in a 19-7 run that sent the Hawks into the fourth quarter with a 67-64 lead and had the sellout crowd of 19,044 in Philips Arena frothing at the possibility of closing out what would’ve been – and could still be – one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history.
But West approached George with one simple but profound point: from here on out, it’s on you and me to get this done.
“They made that little run, I think they were up three or four. I just wanted to make sure he or I made the play,” West said. “Obviously, Lance (Stephenson) is a great cutter, he plays great off the ball. George (Hill) is a guy we can rely on to knock down perimeter shots.
“But Paul and I have to be the creators and the finishers in those moments. Our aggression was at the right level, our will collectively to make plays when we needed to make plays was there.”
Atlanta led 84-79 with 3:16 left when West simply took over. A couple of free throws. A jumper. After a frustrating miss, he commanded the ball on the next possession, isolated defender Paul Millsap and beat him left for the go-ahead bucket with 47.5 seconds left.
Then came some strong defensive work from Ian Mahinmi, who aggressively challenged three straight Atlanta drives, forcing one turnover and two missed shots while the Pacers made their free throws at the other end to close it out.
“When a team’s making a run like that and you’re dealing with an eight seed trying to knock off a one seed in their building, the place is erupting on every play, to have somebody out there with that level of composure just settles everybody down,” said Frank Vogel of West. “He’s our rock. There’s no other way to put it.”
There is some question surrounding George’s availability for Game 7, because he took two steps off the bench and onto the court when George Hill scuffled with Mike Scott late in the second quarter. NBA rules state “all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench” during an altercation, with a one-game suspension and $35,000 fine the mandatory penalty.
It’s possible, by the absolute letter of the law, the league could choose to suspend George and Rasual Butler, who also stepped onto the floor. But neither made an aggressive move toward the scuffle and both quickly retreated as assistant coaches and trainers intervened.
“I’m not concerned about any suspensions until we hear something,” Vogel said. “I don’t imagine there would be.”
Faced with the challenge of becoming the first Pacers team ever to come back from a 3-2 deficit to win a playoff series, Vogel made substantial changes for Game 6. Though he kept struggling center Roy Hibbert in the starting lineup, Vogel was busy elsewhere:
- He used Chris Copeland off the bench instead of Luis Scola, giving the second unit a greater 3-point threat and a little more defensive agility;
- He tightened the backcourt rotation, leaving Evan Turner on the bench in favor of extended run for Hill at shooting guard next to backup point guard C.J. Watson;
- With more athletic lineups on the floor, Vogel had the Pacers switch much more frequently on pick-and-rolls, keeping a body on Atlanta’s 3-point shooters, either challenging their shots or forcing them off the arc, contributing to 26 percent shooting for the Hawks (9 of 35);
- He ramped up Mahinmi’s responsibility and the backup center responded in a big way with six rebounds, two blocks and the aforementioned strong rim protection in the closing minutes.
“It’s not something that philosophically I’m really against as a coach,” Vogel said. “It’s just how our team is built. We’ve had success with it. I think you can have success with small lineups, but there’s a risk. You have to change some things with how you play, especially on the defensive end. It’s difficult to just do on the fly, but it’s something we’re just trying to do.”
When they set out seven months ago in search of the No. 1 seed, the point was to make sure as many Game 7s as possible would on the Pacers’ home floor.
That the first one comes in the first round isn’t exactly according to plan, but at least they’ve given themselves that chance.
“We played all year for this, to get Game 7s in our building,” West said. “The energy’s going to be great. We just have to handle our business and don’t disappoint.”