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May 3, 2014

FROM THE PRESS BOX: Relax, Pacers fans, but don't breathe easy yet

INDIANAPOLIS — Breathe, Indiana Pacers fans. Just breathe.

You deserve to take a deep breath after a seven-game series against Atlanta that very nearly depleted the Pacers of oxygen in their quest for a NBA championship.

On Saturday, at long last, Indiana finally looked the part of a No. 1 playoff seed as it knocked Atlanta out at Bankers Life Fieldhouse by a 92-80 count. The “good” Pacers emerged from the shadows.

So breathe in that intoxicating air of a NBA playoff series win. No one said it was going to be easy.

But don’t breathe easy. Not yet. Not until the Pacers can prove that their Game 7 performance is part of a larger trend, not just an outlier of quality against a graph line of mediocrity in the last month of the season.

Indiana did good things on Saturday it hasn’t done in its stretch run loss of form. Most notably, center Roy Hibbert re-animated himself from the dead. The Pacers’ big man put his bungling behind him Saturday and became an honest-to-goodness threatening option in the paint. Hibbert scored 13 had seven rebounds and five blocks.

Indiana played stifling defense. Aside from an early spurt of 3-pointers by Kyle Korver, the Hawks never really got any traction offensively. Hawks forward Paul Millsap was 0-for-9 at halftime. Center Pero Antic never scored at all.

Once punched in the mouth with a 14-2 second quarter Pacers run, the Hawks unraveled offensively, and became even more 3-point dependent than they’re already constructed. Atlanta attempted a NBA playoff record 44 3-pointers and made only 11 of them.

The Pacers were busting out all over. George Hill, who can thank Hibbert for deflecting attention away from his poor recent play, had 15 points. David West scored four, but went  beast mode in the lane with a playoff-high 13 rebounds and six blocks.

As welcome as the return of the “good” Pacers was on Saturday, it still has to be put into perspective. The Pacers merely did on Saturday what they should have been doing all along.

Atlanta, fearsome though they were at times in the series, is a 38-win team that richly deserved its status as the worst team to make the playoffs. Atlanta is decidedly average.

A decidedly average team that should have closed the series out in its favor on Thursday. Atlanta led by five with 3:16 at Philips Arena. Teams bidding for a series upset have to close those games out. Atlanta didn’t. It was doomed from that moment.

The odds of 38-win Atlanta stealing a Game 7 road win after blowing their best chance were extremely long. The Hawks looked every bit the part of grist for the mill on Saturday.

As the Pacers caught their breath, the party line in the wake of their survival was how tough the Atlanta matchup was for them.

“It was difficult for everybody. Having [Kyle] Korver running around and hitting 3s? They live and die by it. It was plain heart. It was a challenge we had to step up and take,” said Pacers guard Lance Stephenson, who scored 19 and had 14 rebounds.

“People make sacrifices. They went small and some guys didn’t play as much as they wanted to play. Some guys got benched, some others stepped up,” Hibbert said.

The match-up against the Hawks wasn’t favorable, but that doesn’t explain everything away. After all, the Pacers struggled entering the playoffs.

The Pacers still did some things that will be fatal against better teams, including Washington, their next playoff opponent. The Pacers were fortunate that their 11 first-half turnovers were only converted into four Atlanta points. Of their 44 long-range attempts, the Hawks missed a lot of open ones too.

Still, the return of the “good” Pacers will no doubt be predicted. The Pacers themselves struck a confident tone after the game.

“I could care less what people say,” said Hibbert, when asked about the perception that the Pacers were on the ropes. “We’re going to continue to grow. Nobody said it would be easy. We have to keep moving, keep preparing and hopefully we’ll get a win the next game.”

“I never really felt we were that far off. A lot was written about our struggles in the late part of the season. I don’t think that’s a part of what happened in this series,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “I think [Atlanta] presented a match-up challenge for us, but I don’t think we ever strayed too far from what we are, especially on the defensive end.”

The Washington series will make Vogel’s words prophetic or regrettable because one game does not a revival make.

When the Pacers can repeat this performance over the course of several games, if the Pacers can go six games or less against the young, talented, but probably not ready for the Conference Finals Wizards, then talk can seriously begin about the return of the “good” Pacers ... for good.

Until that time comes, breathe in and smell the roses of the moment. Just don’t breathe easy just yet.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

 

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