Indy braces for Heat wave
With Wizards threat out of the picture, Pacers turn their focus to the champs
WASHINGTON -- They started at the top, now they're here.
The Indiana Pacers have been a soap opera over the past three months. The schadenfreude/rubbernecking factor has been high, their near-collapse launching a million conversations and Internet comments.
What do the Pacers think about all that now that they're back in the Eastern Conference finals for a rematch against the Miami Heat after eliminating the Washington Wizards with a 93-80 Game 6 road victory Thursday night?
The thumping bass rattling the visiting locker room said it all.
The song choice as they celebrated their victory, D.J. Khaled's "They Don't Love You No More," might as well be the team's anthem at this point.
Should someone have pointed out the irony that D.J. Khaled is a Miami-based rapper and frequent courtside Heat fan? Not on this night.
"This year we had a lot more naysayers, but we blocked that out," said Roy Hibbert, who has had his share of ups and downs this season.
"We like it when everybody is talking about us," Lance Stephenson said. "Everybody has been talking about us and bringing us down."
The Pacers have quite a task ahead of them -- the two-time champs have generally blasted their way through the first two rounds -- but this was not the time to worry about that. After wheezing through the first round against the Atlanta Hawks in seven games, then getting historically embarrassed in a once-in-a-generation rebounding landslide while whiffing on a closeout game earlier this week, the Pacers were enjoying a rare moment.
After all the hotly contested games and borderline upsets, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds have reached the East finals, and the Pacers will host Game 1 on Sunday.
"I'm proud of the way we've handled ourselves this last month or so," David West said. "It's been tough both mentally and physically, but we've been able persevere and get to this."
West carried the Pacers in Game 6, playing one of the finest playoff games of his career by scoring 29 points, 18 of which came in the second half. The Wizards, who ended the postseason an inexplicable 1-4 at home and 5-1 on the road, tried to throw some body blows, but West kept the Pacers ahead with one clutch shot after another.
The Pacers haven't been able to totally recapture their midseason form when they were lapping the league, but there have been signs. The Pacers are now 6-2 in these playoffs since going down 3-2 to the Hawks and have swept their past four road games, which is meaningful in the postseason, no matter the circumstances.
After the Wizards went on a run to take a 74-73 lead with 8:30 to play Thursday, the Pacers wrapped the inexperienced opponent like a boa constrictor defensively with Hibbert protecting the rim and the Pacers' perimeter players smothering pick-and-rolls. It was a 20-6 Pacers run the rest of the way, with West drilling three jumpers and Indiana executing like a genuine No. 1 seed to wipe the upstarts out of the postseason.
"We're going to trust who we are," West said. "We've never lost our confidence that we can win tough games against tough teams."
It was mildly alarming that Paul George didn't make much of an impact offensively, shooting just 4-of-11. After his explosion in Game 4 with 39 points, George was just 9-of-26 shooting over the last two games of the series. With a matchup coming against LeBron James, the Pacers are going to need more from George.
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The Heat and Pacers have been sizing each other up for a year since their tight seven-game series in last season's conference finals. Each roster move, whether it was Greg Oden signing in Miami for possible Hibbert matchups or the Pacers revamping their bench after the Heat dominated in that area, was executed with an eye toward a rematch.
Including the playoff matchups over the past two seasons, the Pacers and Heat have squared off 24 times over the past two-plus seasons. During the regular season, in which their leads on everyone else in the conference were so wide, each game had a mini-playoff vibe with several days of buildup. Much of April was a back-and-forth as they traded the No. 1 seed in the conference, the scoreboard watching in full effect.
"There's not a whole lot in terms of X's and O's that either of us don't know about one another," West said. "It's going to come down to the details."
"LeBron has been playing at a high caliber. Chris Bosh has been hitting 3s. We're going to have to come ready for them," Hibbert said. "We know they're a good team."
The Wizards ultimately did not get the type performance they needed from the young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, who combined to shoot 12-of-35 with seven turnovers in Game 6. In the future, those two have potential to advance to a conference finals or two.
The Pacers will not have the experience advantage in the next series, and their margin for error is about to squeeze to a minimum.
When Indiana and Miami first met in training camp, the Pacers set the goal of getting back to face the Heat and to do so from a more advantageous position. The process has been turbulent and their goal is not yet reached, but they headed home late Thursday with a sense of accomplishment.
"Everything is behind us. When we were 33-7 or how we struggled down the stretch and took a lot of criticism, that means nothing," coach Frank Vogel said. "This is where we wanted to be."