The Indiana Pacers obviously can't count on Roy Hibbert, and Paul George is already playing excellent basketball during the first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks. Counting on him to step his performance up one more level for Game 7 is a foolhardy wish, even though it would validate his superstardom.
Lance Stephenson has been playing adequately, but the Hawks seem to be accounting for his aggressive instincts rather well. George Hill isn't much of an offensive contributor, and the bench is full of limited players who can only be effective in small doses.
David West, please step up to the proverbial plate.
The veteran power forward has often functioned as the heart and soul of this Pacers squad, combining physical brutality with the wisdom of age. But he can't be content to lead with words and not examples during a crucial Game 7, one that's—obviously—a must-win for the team trying to avoid an epic collapse.
In order to beat Atlanta for a fourth time during the seven-game series, West has to play like he did during the stretch run of the most recent outing—quite impressively.
Anything less will force Indiana to go down in the record books as one of the most disappointing teams in NBA history.
Still Alive After Impressive Game 6
The Pacers were on the verge of being eliminated, trailing 84-79 in the fourth quarter after a jumper from Jeff Teague with 3:15 remaining extended Atlanta's lead. The odds were certainly long, no doubt hurt by the raucous crowd within Philips Arena, one that packed the normally quiet and empty building so full that tickets were being given for standing-room-only sections.
But then West drew a shooting foul on Paul Millsap and drained two free-throw attempts.
The lead was cut from five to three.
When a lazy pass was lofted into Pero Antic's hands, West pounced and stole the ball. Seventeen seconds later, he knocked down a 19-foot jumper.
The lead was cut from three to one, and the momentum—which had once favored the Hawks rather heavily—shifted in dramatic fashion.
With 0:46 remaining, West would hit another jumper, this time giving his Pacers a lead they wouldn't relinquish, and he made one more for good measure after the game was already out of reach. Those shots gave him no fewer than a dozen points in the final period, leaving no doubt he was the impetus behind the comeback victory.
"(West has) poise and composure. When a team is making a run like that and you’re dealing with an eight seed trying to knock off a one seed in their building and the place is erupting on every play, (it’s great to have) somebody out there with that level of composure," Frank Vogel said after the game, courtesy of NBA.com's Scott Agness.
"He just really settles everybody down. He’s our rock. There’s no other way to put it."
This vintage West, the one who finished Game 6 with 24 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and two steals on 10-of-20 shooting from the field and a 4-of-4 performance from the line, is exactly what the Pacers needed, especially given the potentially dire circumstances.
Breaking Into Form
When it seemed like everyone on the Pacers was struggling during the second half of the 2013-14 regular season, West wasn't exempt. He failed to live up to his typical standard time and time again, as did every one of his teammates at some point during the post-All-Star-break futility.
He wasn't assertive on offense. He wasn't playing defense with the same intimidating vigor we've come to expect from the 33-year-old power forward who often serves as the linchpin for the Pacers.
But fortunately for Indiana, the playoffs have magically snapped him out of his funk, continuing a trend he started while the regular season was drawing to a finish:
|Pre All-Star, 2013-14||13.7||6.5||2.9||49.3|
|Post All-Star, 2013-14||14.5||7.2||2.6||47.9|
|Games 1 through 5||13.2||4.8||4.8||51.9|
Despite West's increased numbers during the second half of this season, he got worse. The per-game stats are largely a function of more playing time and opportunity within a struggling Indiana offense, and his dip in field-goal percentage is perhaps the most telling number of the bunch.
But regardless, the big man has been playing like vintage West against Atlanta, with everything coming to a head in Game 6.
Not only is he passing the ball well and rebounding aggressively, but he's also a versatile enough defender to avoid becoming a liability, and he's been nearly unstoppable as a scorer. Down the stretch of Game 6, it felt as though the big man was a lock to convert for at least two points whenever he touched the ball.
His jumpers were falling, and there wasn't any way for the Atlanta defense to keep him from spinning and finishing or dashing to the right side and completing an easy jump-hook for another deuce.
He was virtually indefensible.
"Nothing fazes him," George gushed about West after the final buzzer had sounded, via Wheat Hotchkiss of NBA.com. "I knew when the game was tight like that, to have him on your side, it gives you confidence that we (were) going to go out and finish that game off. He just made plays after plays to give us a cushion to win that game."
Hotchkiss also revealed that the power forward had whispered "me and you" to George during the fourth quarter in an attempt to motivate his younger superstar. Ignoring the grammatical flaw in that three-word phase, it worked, as the duo combined for 21 points in the final period.
But those two testimonies to West's leadership also bring one more abstract concept into play.
The Pacers haven't had it in weeks. Months, even. Well, they may have internally possessed confidence, but it came across as cockiness when they were scarily unable to back it up on the court.
However, it was oozing out of West's pores during the Thursday night comeback victory, and it likely will once more during the win-or-go-home Game 7 on Saturday. West is well aware that he faces a favorable matchup against the Hawks, as he'll be guarded by either an undersized Paul Millsap, an ancient Elton Brand or an inexperienced Antic whenever he's on the court.
And while George is receiving the vast majority of the defensive attention, he'll be free to torture the Atlanta defense once more. As Mike Wells wrote for ESPN.com after the Pacers survived their first elimination game of the postseason, his skill set enables him to thrive in high-pressure situations like this:
West has never been a flashy player during his 11-year career. While other power forwards like Blake Griffin play above the rim, West is grounded in fundamentals. More old school than flash. A jab step to get some space between him and the defender. An up-and-under move rather than a dunk. And West is never in a rush when making his move.
That's why he was perfect for Thursday because he wouldn't get overeager trying to do something outside his comfort zone.
It's also why he'll be perfect for Saturday.
If West capitalizes on his opportunities, just as he did in Game 6, the Pacers will almost certainly advance to the next round, where the Washington Wizards are patiently waiting for a chance to establish legitimacy in the eyes of the general public.
If he doesn't, he likely won't get another chance to show off his skills until October.
It's as simple as that.