ATLANTA — To save their season and their self-respect, to avoid joining the short list of Epic Collapses in Modern Sports History, the Indiana Pacers had to confront an essential, existential question: Who are we?
Are we still the bruising, snarling, paint-closing powerhouse that rattled the Miami Heat last spring? Are we something else? Something less?
For nine weeks, across 28 games and 16 defeats, the Pacers gradually lost their grip on their identity, until all that was left was glass-eyed stares and gnawing, unanswerable questions. Who were the Pacers? What happened to their defense? Their cohesion? Where was the team that dominated the East for four months?
Even the Pacers didn’t know anymore.
So there they were Thursday night, facing playoff extinction, at the hands of a nameless No. 8 seed, facing a potentially historic humiliation: the first No. 1 seed in the modern era to be ousted by a team with a losing record.
The Pacers avoided, or at least postponed, that fate with a 95-88 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, tying the series at 3-3. They did it by simultaneously jettisoning their old self-image and reclaiming it.
The snarls and the gratuitous forearms were back. But Roy Hibbert, the 7'2" linchpin of Indiana’s defense, was not.
Hibbert started, but played just 12 minutes, was benched to start the second half and reappeared late in the game only because of foul trouble to Ian Mahinmi, his backup. The Pacers played smaller, but tougher, matching the Hawks’ size and mobility, negating their advantage on the perimeter.
Changing identities in the midst of a playoff series is inherently dicey, but after falling behind 3-2, the Pacers really had no choice.
“It’s not something that philosophically I’m really against as a coach,” the Pacers’ Frank Vogel said. “It’s just how our team is built. … I think you can have success with small lineups, but there’s a risk.”
With the series reduced to one game, Vogel must confront the same question that has dogged him for two weeks: Do you start Hibbert again Saturday, or abandon him altogether? Vogel offered no hints.
The Pacers could face a much more devastating—and involuntary—lineup change. They could lose Paul George to a suspension, depending on how NBA officials view George’s actions during a second-quarter scuffle between the Pacers’ George Hill and the Hawks’ Mike Scott.
George, who was on the bench at the time, took a step over the sideline and into the playing area while Hill and Scott traded shoves (and at least one swing, by Scott). NBA rules prohibit leaving the bench area during a fight—a measure designed to prevent bench-clearing brawls. The punishment is an automatic one-game suspension.
There is a gray area here, however. The rule states that players who are not in the game “must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench.” Though George and teammate Rasual Butler each stepped over the sideline, they could fairly be characterized as still in the “vicinity of their bench.”
Another fact in the Pacers’ favor: The dustup between Hill and Scott was brief, and neither one was ejected for fighting. So the league could determine this was not a by-the-book “altercation.”
The NBA is expected to review the incident Friday.
“I’m not concerned with any suspensions until we hear something,” Vogel said.
The Pacers’ victory Thursday was by no means overwhelming, nor did it put to rest any of the lingering concerns about their makeup, or their ability to get back to the Eastern Conference finals. But it did earn them a momentary reprieve from the second-guessing and the sideline psychoanalysis.
George and David West scored 24 points apiece. Lance Stephenson added 21 points, and the three of them combined for 28 rebounds, as the Pacers—despite benching Hibbert for most of the game—won the battle of the boards, 47-44.
Along the way, the Pacers’ flashed some of their old nastiness. West knocked Pero Antic to the court with a hard foul just minutes after tipoff. In the second quarter, West drew an offensive foul for driving an elbow into Paul Millsap’s face. Stephenson twice plowed through Hawks players in transition, out of frustration or, well, just because he’s Lance Stephenson.
Then came the Hill-Scott scuffle, which came on a loose-ball situation with 19 seconds left in the first half. Hill appeared to poke Scott in the eye. Scott took a swing at Hill, which could also trigger a suspension.
It was that kind of night, which seemed to favor the Pacers, who prefer a muddy, low-scoring game. Even so, they blew a 9-point lead in the third quarter and had to rally back from a 5-point deficit in the final minutes of the fourth.
It was West, the 11-year veteran, who pushed the Pacers across the finish line, with a running six-foot jumper after taking Millsap off the dribble. The shot fell with 41.3 seconds left, giving the Pacers the lead for good, at 87-85. They put the game away with free throws from George and Hill.
Five No. 1 seeds have lost in the first round since the NBA adopted the current format in 1984. All of them lost to teams with winning records. But if the Pacers were to lose this series to the Hawks, who finished just 38-44, this upset would trump all of the others.
For the moment, the Pacers have avoided that ignominious distinction. But the Pacers still need one more victory to escape this series and to muffle, for now, the nagging doubts and the internal strife that has plagued them these last two months.
As he trotted back to the locker room after the final buzzer Thursday, George kept up a running dialogue with a camera from NBA Entertainment.
“Just happy to bring it back to Indiana for Game 7,” he said.
George fist-bumped a team staffer. Then he ducked into the locker room, where all of the same questions remain.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.