INDIANAPOLIS — After forcing a Game 7 with a Thursday night victory in Atlanta, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seeded Indiana Pacers wondered about the status of leading scorer and forward Paul George and struggling center Roy Hibbert.
George left the bench during an on-the-court pushing and shoving match in Game 6, and there was some speculation into Friday whether or not the NBA would suspend George for Saturday’s deciding game.
And with Hibbert in the worst funk of his career, would coach Frank Vogel go with a smaller lineup to counter the No. 8 seeded Hawks’ passion for shooting 3-pointers?
George was not suspended, Hibbert was not benched, and along with guard Lance Stephenson, the Pacers advanced with a 92-80 victory in sold-out Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
George had a game-best 30 points to go with 11 rebounds, Hibbert was aggressive early and finished with 13 points and seven rebounds and Stephenson added 19 points, 14 rebounds and five assists.
Indiana advances to play the Washington Wizards in the East semifinals. Game 1 is set for Monday night in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
After losing twice at home in the series with Atlanta and having had to win Thursday and Saturday to avoid elimination, Indiana finally dealt with the Hawks’ barrage of 3-point attempts, including an NBA record 44 — they made only 11 — in the seventh and deciding game.
In Games 6 and 7 combined, the Hawks made 20 of 79 shots from 3-point range. Atlanta, which got 19 points from guard Kyle Korver and 15 points and 17 rebounds from forward Paul Millsap on Saturday, also was outrebounded 55-38 in the decisive game.
George was asked if he felt joy or relief after the Pacers avoided being eliminated by a No. 8 seed.
“A little bit of both,” George said. “At some point, something had to give as far as them having legs to make jumpers. We grinded them down so much throughout this series. When they got to Game 7, those jump shots just weren’t falling for them. But credit them. They can shoot the ball.”
George said Hibbert’s performance also was exactly what the Pacers needed.
“It was huge,” George said. “He got locked in after the start he had offensively. When Roy is locked in offensively, his defense is off the charts. That’s when we know he is special. Tonight, he was very special for us, which is great because of everything he has been going through. He stayed with it.”
The Pacers showed flashes of the team that dominated the East during the season’s first three months, using a 7-0 run to close the first quarter and lead 24-23 and then using an 18-4 burst to close the second quarter in building a 47-36 advantage.
George had a 16-point first half, Stephenson added 10 during the pivotal first 24 minutes and Hibbert added nine points and five rebounds before intermission when Indiana dominated the rebounding category 27-13.
Korver scored 12 first-half points, including a rare four-point play that gave the Hawks a 32-29 lead with 9:34 remaining in the second quarter. But that is when Indiana responded with the key 18-4 run that included 10 points from George.
Indiana made 10 of 16 field-goal attempts in the key second period while Atlanta made only 4 of 20 including only a pair of two-point baskets.
“I thought we got a little too 3-point happy,” Korver said after the loss. “In the second half, it was kind of like, ‘If we are going to go out, we’re going to go out with guns blazing.'”
The Pacers continued to apply the pressure in the third quarter, taking a 57-40 lead on George Hill’s three-point play at the 8:10 mark. Indiana’s advantage was 62-45 when the Hawks mounted another charge, outscoring the Pacers 18-9 to close the period and pull to within 71-63 with 12 minutes to go.
Through three quarters, the Pacers enjoyed a 39-26 rebounding advantage with forward David West collecting 12 and Stephenson adding nine with still one period to go.
At that point, Indiana applied essentially what amounted to a knockout punch, increasing its lead to 77-64 with 9:56 to go, capped by a George field goal that forced an Atlanta timeout.
The Pacers never allowed Atlanta to make a final run, leading 90-78 with 1:27 remaining.
“It’s not easy playing a team that shoots 44 3-pointers,” Vogel said. “It’s not easy defensively to guard that kind of lineup, especially when 18 of the 3s they took were by their big guys. They had us spread out and scrambling, and our big guys really had a tall task. But they rose to the challenge, and our rim protection was exceptional.”
West finished with only four points but had 13 rebounds for Indiana.
Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said the Hawks had a chance to build a nice lead in the first quarter when Indiana made seven of its 17 turnovers, but poor shooting did not allow that to happen.
“I think it is always important to credit the defense when we do not shoot well, but we missed some chances in transition and we missed some good looks from 3,” Budenholzer said.
NOTES: In NBA history, the home team has a 92-23 record in Game 7s. … Certainly, Indianapolis loves its Pacers, but Atlanta has a strong Indianapolis flavor. Hawks guard Jeff Teague is a graduate of Indianapolis Pike High School. Guard Shelvin Mack played college ball at Butler, only a few miles north of Bankers Life Fieldhouse … The Hawks are 50-3 this season when leading entering the third quarter. Indiana took a 47-36 lead into the locker room in this Game 7. … This marks the sixth time Indiana and Atlanta have met in a playoff series. The Pacers won three of the first five and Atlanta won in 1986-87 and again in 1995-96. … Saturday was the first time Indiana hosted a Game 7 in any playoff series.
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