The Atlanta Hawks couldn't quite complete an improbable upset on Thursday evening at Philips Arena, as the Indiana Pacers somehow collected themselves well enough to send this opening-round NBA playoff series back to Indianapolis.
Overcoming a second-half charge led by Hawks point guard Jeff Teague, Indiana responded to the ultimate adversity and managed to win Game 6 on the road 95-88.
David West did his best to keep Indiana together, hitting a clutch runner in the lane to put his team on top 87-85, which served as the most momentous bucket of the game.
West had this to say about Game 7 following his team's win:
West: "We played all year for this - to get Game 7s in our building."— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) May 2, 2014
Scott Agness of Pacers.com praised West for rising to the immense challenge amid a hostile environment and epic disappointment looming:
David West showing up when the Pacers need him, of course. He leads the team in points (22), rebounds (10), assists (6).— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) May 2, 2014
West wound up with 24 points, matching fellow star Paul George for a team-high, and Lance Stephenson pitched in 21 points to help offset what Teague did, as he led all scorers with 29.
ESPN Stats & Info highlighted Atlanta's lack of success on the road in Game 7:
The Hawks are 0-8 all-time on the road in Game 7s... Hawks at Pacers Game 7 will take place Saturday.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 2, 2014
It appeared as though Indiana would assert its will, snap out of its funk and get back to its identity when it dictated the tempo in the second quarter and played solid defense for much of the first half. That resulted in a five-point advantage at the break, courtesy of George Hill's buzzer-beating shot from downtown:
Coming out of the locker room, coach Mike Budenholzer's Hawks came out firing at the most pivotal time in what was an otherwise lackluster shooting display for the night.
ESPN's Mike Wells noted how the third-quarter, foul trouble-induced exit of Pacers star Paul George was detrimental to Indiana's bid to force a Game 7 back home:
Paul George went to the bench with his 4th foul and Indy leading by 9. Now the score is tied 61-61 with 1:53 left in 3rd qtr— Mike Wells (@MikeWellsNFL) May 2, 2014
George made a three-pointer with 7:01 left in the fourth cut it to 74-73, but that was his first made shot of the second half. The versatile perimeter dynamo publicly expressed his desire for the Pacers to play a smaller lineup before Thursday's contest, per Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star:
We're in Game 6 now, it's time to just switch things up...and play a little smaller. [...] The way they play defense, they understand that they're small and they're going to double team, they're going to trap, they're going to pressure up because we're playing big. So to negate that, we have to play small and play their way.
The Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz pointed out how well the small lineup was working for Indiana after it fell into an early 15-5 hole:
Since falling behind 15-5 early, Pacers have outscored Hawks 36 21. With small lineup.— Bob Kravitz (@bkravitz) May 2, 2014
It was actually a smaller lineup that allowed Atlanta to carve into the nine-point lead the Pacers had built in the third quarter once George sat down. Teague and Lou Williams formed a smaller but quicker backcourt, as Kyle Korver and Mike Scott spread the floor as bigger men who could shoot, while All-Star Paul Millsap manned the center position.
Since Roy Hibbert had no interest in showing up much at all for Indiana, this strategy worked wonders, swinging the momentum of the game back in the hosts' favor as Teague took over.
When Teague took it right at Hibbert and lifted the Hawks to a three-point lead just before the third-quarter buzzer, even the NBA's official Twitter account acknowledged how well the feisty Hawk was playing:
ESPN Stats & Info noted during the fourth quarter how the Pacers played with and without Hibbert on the hardwood:
Pacers are now -14 in 7:26 w/ Roy Hibbert on the court tonight & +11 in 28:34 with Hibbert on the bench.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 2, 2014
Safe to say that Hibbert has completely lost his confidence, as he posted zero points for the second straight game. The skilled, talented big man couldn't have come up much smaller when his team needed him most. That also goes true for a lot of Indiana's maligned squad, though.
Cold form from the field again characterized the Hawks' final 12-minute frame. A dismal 9-of-35 shooting from beyond the arc led some hysterical Hawks fans to jeer the officials for their plight, as Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix observed:
Hawks fans screaming that the refs are fixing the game. Nevermind Atlanta has missed 20 three-pointers.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) May 2, 2014
But Teague provided a necessary spark, showing off his offensive arsenal with penetrating prowess and exceptional jumpers off the dribble.
Thankfully for the visitors, coach Frank Vogel deployed the small lineup again in the fourth sans Hibbert. ESPN's Sage Steele observed how Vogel was rather consistent in sticking with his core of smaller contributors, but the Hawks were still able to keep things close with their own quickness on the perimeter:
George backed up his suggested adjustments by stealing a Williams pass, then knocking down two late free throws. Teague tried to take it to the rack again on the next possession, but was denied at the rim, suddenly extinguishing the Hawks' chances to close out the series.
So while Atlanta failed to complete its rise from eighth-seed obscurity that finished the regular season six games below .500, it has plenty to build on regardless of what happens in Saturday's Game 7. It's hard to expect the Hawks to summon enough fortitude after putting forth maximum effort to knock out the East's top seed, but they have won twice this postseason in Indianapolis.
Perhaps this close call is just what the Pacers needed to right the ship and play like an elite team the rest of the way. However, they are only guaranteed one more game despite how encouraging this win was. A lot of pressure will still fall on Indiana to close the deal at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Based on how unpredictable this series has been thus far, all bets should be off for Game 7 even with the momentum the Pacers have generated with this monumental triumph.