A long, strange trip it has been, but the Pacers have arrived at destiny’s doorstep.
They had to survive two elimination games in the first round to beat Atlanta, had to rebound after losing the opener at home to Washington, but the Pacers are back in the Eastern Conference Finals against their nemesis, the Miami Heat.
Thanks to David West, the Pacers closed out the Wizards with a 93-80 victory in Game 6 Thursday night in Washington. West scored 29 points, 18 in the second half, eight in a 17-2 fourth-quarter run that put the game away just when it appeared the Wizards were on the verge of taking control.
“I just didn’t want to lose this game,” West told ESPN’s Doris Burke after the game. “I told the guys if you get in trouble, just find me at the top and I’m going to bring us home tonight.”
That was the script. It seemed like every time the Pacers needed a bucket, West was there, open at the top of the key.
With West taking care of things offensively, the rest of the Pacers dug in defensively, limiting the Wizards to 39 percent shooting, neutralizing them on the boards after being outrebounded by a historic margin (39) in their Game 5 loss, keeping electrifying guards John Wall and Bradley Beal largely unplugged. The two combined for 28 points, 12-for-35 shooting and seven turnovers.
“Defense and David West,” Paul George said. “David came through for us … early in the game, the middle, down the stretch, David really carried us offensively. And defensively we got back to being special.”
The Pacers controlled most of the team and were leading 69-55 late in the third when Wall and Beal sparked, combining for 11 points in a 19-4 burst that pushed the Wizards into a 74-73 lead with 8:31 remaining and sent the Verizon Center crowd into a frenzy in anticipation of the first home victory of the series.
But West answered with back-to-back jumpers, and then Lance Stephenson – who also had his best game of the series with 17 points, eight assists and five rebounds – converted a strong drive, and the Pacers were back in control.
The Wizards made just one basket in 8½ minutes, missing 10 shots and committing three turnovers, and that was that.
“We knew they’d make a run,” West said. “They’re an unbelievable team, they’ve got great schemes and a good mix of young talent and veterans. We knew this was one of those games where we had to get the shot, we had to play at our pace and really dictate how aggressive we were going to be from the gate, offensively, to really take control of the game.”
Fitted for crowns and rings after a 33-7 start, left for dead after a 10-13 finish to the regular season, the Pacers viewed the postseason as an opportunity for redemption – a strange position for a team that carried the No. 1 seed in the conference.
“Like we said when we started the playoffs, 33-7 is behind us, it means nothing. How we struggled down the stretch, took a lot of criticism, means nothing,” said Frank Vogel. “That’s behind us. This is where we wanted to be.”
Though Miami had an irregular season, the Heat enters this third series in three years against the Pacers having regained their mojo. Miami breezed through the Bobcats and then made short work of the Nets, an impressive 4-1 series victory over a team that had swept them during the regular season.
Indiana, on the other hand, has been maddeningly inconsistent, going 3-4 at home but winning five road games – already a franchise record for a single postseason.
We’ve proved we can play well, we’ve proved we can do the right thing, we just didn’t do it every time,” said Luis Scola. “It’s a good chance for us. We are where we think we belong and it’s a good chance for us to have seven good games. If we have seven good games, we’re going to be OK.”
In 2012, the Pacers were on a voyage of discovery and learned they could challenge the best, losing to Miami in six games in the second round. In 2013, they took it one step further, pushing the Heat to seven games in the conference finals.
This year, they have been on a mission.
They wanted homecourt advantage and got it.
They wanted another shot at the Heat, this time knowing Game 7 would be on their floor, and now they have it.
“We’ve been talking about this series all year,” said West. “We’ve had a different path than they’ve had but we’re here.”