Only one of Saturday’s three Game 7’s felt as if it was a close, nail-biting battle. It didn’t take place in Indianapolis.
As the Los Angeles Clippers were preparing to defend their home court from the three-point maniacs known as the Golden State Warriors, there was an unlikely Game 7 in full-swing in the East.
It wasn’t as dramatic as Damian Lillard‘s incredible addition to his clutch montage of the season, but the Indiana Pacers sent the Atlanta Hawks back to reality, icing the series in their own Game 7.
In order for Indiana to advance past the first round and for President Larry Bird to put the shotgun shells back in the box for a couple more weeks, the Pacers were forced to win two straight games. It didn’t seem tough, considering Indiana started the season 25-5, a stretch that included nine-game, seven-game, and five-game winning streaks.
But we’re far, far away from December, long past the days where a couple mistakes wouldn’t bring worrisome reaction, and belief that this team is doomed for failure.
It’s the playoffs – where even the Eastern Conference can look competitive – and neither team had captured two straight wins in this series. Until Paul George decided to continue his max-contract level performances, and Roy Hibbert reminded us he’s still on the roster.
Can you honestly blame Mike Budenholzer and Atlanta for going for the knockout punch in the last two games? They were on the verge of becoming the first sub .500 team to upset a No. 1 seed in NBA history, and they knew the kryptonite that could likely send Frank Vogel packing his bags: three-point shooting, and lots of it.
In Game 6 and 7 combined (both losses for Atlanta), the Hawks launched 79 three-pointers, which is the definition of “going for the kill” in a league that’s transformed into a more athletic & perimeter-gifted environment for the players and fans. Of those 79 long balls, the Hawks connected on just 20. It’s often broken down into deeper thought, but the 59 missed opportunities in that category is what kept this No. 8 seed from shocking the world.
The sad part is, it truly wouldn’t have been a “shock” to anyone that’s witnessed the Pacers’ demise since the beginning of March. After a small sample of Evan Turner making a difference once Indiana obtained the “scorer,” overreactions were made (as always), and the Pacers had prematurely advanced to the NBA Finals. It’s amusing how that works, as Turner’s lack of defensive pressure and intensity kept him on the sidelines for the final 96 minutes of this series. It’s exactly what Vogel had to do, and his offensive honchos filled any void they left in the first five games.
Game 7 became the seventh consecutive game in which Paul George put aside all the mid-season criticism for his slumps and struggles, and mixed his name with the best standout performers of the playoffs.
Scoring 30 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, George fed off the energy in the loudest Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd of the year. He was able to get into a rhythm from mid-range, which is the best way (besides easy charity stripe attempts) for a shooter to get confidence. Eight of his 30 points came in the fourth quarter, when Indiana needed buckets to halt numerous Atlanta attempts to get back into the game.
The Hawks, firing up anything beyond the three-point arc, actually got great looks from outside. In a game that needed them to fall the most, Atlanta set an NBA record for most missed three-pointers in a playoff game (33). Indiana survived the storm, and lived with giving Pero Antic, Paul Millsap, and DeMarre Carroll 13 combined attempts from deep. All 13 clanged off the rim.
For Indiana, the impact of this Game 7 win goes well beyond just moving to the next round. The whole city, Bird likely included, has been overly-anxious for Hibbert to get his confidence back, and finally play at his height, scoring in the middle.
That he did, as eight early points in the first quarter set the tone for the slumping center, and it wasn’t from the free throw line.
Whether it was soft put-backs off a David West miss or implementing his favorite turnaround hook, Hibbert found the bottom of the net in 4-of-5 shot attempts to begin the game.
Developing position, as Hibbert does in his first shot here, is the primary key to getting any big man going, especially one that doesn’t have the fondest touch from the outside. For Hibbert, it’s all about playing 7’2″, and realizing Millsap (6’8″) has no chance to defend him near the restricted area.
Using West near the perimeter allows for Hibbert to have more space in the middle, and he often gets matchups in his favor, particularly in this series if he had been able to play the right way in Games 1-6. From there, he’s worked on his game enough in the previous offseasons that he should have the utmost confidence in his baby hook. Needless to say, this is imminent for the next series vs. Washington.
Off the pick-and-roll with Stephenson (clip above), we see a prime example of why Hibbert has been down in the dumps all series, and really since mid-March. He’s not as self-assured as a physically dominant force should be in these situations, and that’s ultimately what a month’s worth of struggles will do to any athlete, professional or not. Catching the ball off the high screen-roll, Hibbert hesitates and nearly travels, since he has no clue what the best thing is for him to do. Take note of who’s in front of him. The feisty, but very smaller DeMarre Carroll, and Millsap. This should be a straight up, aggressive score each and every time, since Hibbert doesn’t have the athletic ability of DeAndre Jordan to keep rolling off the pick with ferocity. It takes the big man a few seconds to gather, but it’s great for teammates to see his shot falling.
“We know that when he is locked in offensively, his defense is off the charts,” teammate George said of Hibbert after the game. “That’s when he becomes special. I thought he was very special for us.”
Hibbert is about to embark on a new, daunting task. The Washington Wizards await in the second round, and it’s certainly a better matchup for Indiana due to their front court not relying heavily on three-point bombs. Nene, however, is a veteran big that nobody wants to mess with. Just ask Jimmy Butler‘s head. Marcin Gortat, a guy that never gets the appreciation for how far he’s come since backing up Dwight Howard, is a firm believer in aggressive play, until a scuffle breaks out. This doesn’t smell like a recipe for Hibbert to thrive against, since the “soft” label has been attached to him throughout the first round. Changes have to come, but at least it’s not rotational changes for Vogel to make. It’s determination and aggression levels for Hibbert to change. Otherwise, the Wizards will have the easiest five or six game task of eliminating a No. 1 seed.
Indiana could always ride their superstar, their All-Star that’s been through some tough personal issues in the last five months. George has carried them to this second round, so it’s time for people to stop blasting the 24-year-old. He’s doing more than he should have to from a team standpoint, but individually, there can’t be anything sweeter than showing the team personnel your major contract wasn’t a waste.