It's never easy with the Indiana Pacers. The process is always teetering on the brink of implosion, each disappearance of a star or sign of fundamental disjointedness on the offensive end feeding into the reputation that this roster just isn't ready to compete for a championship.
That may be the case. But when their backs are against the wall and everybody is waiting for the foundation to finally collapse, the Pacers keep finding a way to get the job done.
Paul George scored 30 points, Lance Stephenson added 19 and Roy Hibbert 13 in a resurgence, as Indiana turned in a dominant two-way performance to defeat the Atlanta Hawks, 92-80, in Game 7 of their first-round series Saturday.
It wasn't the type of series Indiana wanted, but as Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald pointed out, other talented teams have been pushed by the Hawks in the playoffs:
These Pacers aren't as good or experienced as the '07-08 champ Celtics, but remember those C's also went 7 v ATL in 1st round.— Steve Bulpett (@SteveBHoop) May 4, 2014
The Pacers have advanced to three straight conference semifinals for just the second time since the ABA-NBA merger. They open their second-round series against the Washington Wizards at home on Monday night. Washington defeated the Chicago Bulls in five games in the first round.
While the Pacers took an extra two games and a bevy of more criticism than expected, they looked every bit like a conference title contender Saturday. They held Atlanta to 30.4 percent shooting, including an 11-of-44 (an NBA record for single-game attempts) performance from beyond the three-point arc.
The Hawks broke the NBA record for most 3-point attempts in a playoff game with 44 tonight.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 4, 2014
Indiana helped its cause by knocking down key buckets whenever the Hawks tried mounting a comeback, but more importantly, the Pacers' two All-Stars finally showed up.
ESPN.com's Jeremy Lundblad shed some light on exactly how much upside George has:
44 three-point attempts help. RT @MillerTimePod: Hawks go to the line a series low 16 times. Defend without fouling.— Jared Wade (@8pts9secs) May 4, 2014
With his team's season on the line, some wanted coach Frank Vogel to bench Hibbert entirely. The 7'2" big man, who had been so instrumental in last season's run to the conference finals, had become a walking albatross with every minute on the floor. The Pacers were outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions with Hibbert playing for the series, per NBA.com, by far the worst of any regular rotation player.
In 24 minutes in Games 5 and 6, Hibbert had combined for zero points and two rebounds.
He was far from perfect Saturday evening ad his 13-point, seven-rebound performance will not evoke memories of the Miami manhandling from last May, but it was more than good enough.
Engaged from the opening tip, Hibbert again looked like the man who nearly won the Defensive Player of the Year Award. He blocked five shots and altered many others, leading the Hawks to shoot just 14-of-32 in the restricted area. Hibbert hounded Paul Millsap in the post, no doubt contributing to the Hawks star's 6-of-21 shooting performance.
Atlanta's offense, once thought to be the perfect elixir to Hibbert and Indiana's defensive strategy, collapsed.
The Hawks starting lineup could not find an offensive rhythm. Jeff Teague's solid series ended with a 16-point, three-assist thud and the floor-stretching duo of DeMarre Carroll and Pero Antic were 1-of-12 from the floor.
"It's easy to say, 'Oh, well just take [Hibbert] out,'" Vogel told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated before the game. "But we would get impacted on the other end. I believe in Roy [Hibbert]. We're choosing to try to maintain our defensive edge and do what we can to get the offense clicking."
Despite an uncharacteristically poor night from the steady David West, click is exactly what Indiana's offense did.
All the typical hallmarks associated with a peak-Pacers performance were there. The crazy, mind-bending Stephenson shot attempts. The all-around George excellence that hearkens memories of his December MVP hype. Even the inexplicable turnovers that kept a flailing Hawks team in the game far longer than they should have been made the trip from Georgia to Indianapolis.
George, who recorded a double-double in six of the series' seven games, was active on both ends of the floor. While he couldn't find the touch from deep, he aggressively attacked the paint to draw foul calls and was excellent from mid-range. George scored 10 points in the pivotal second quarter, in which Indiana extended its one-point lead to 11 going into the break.
Paul George is the youngest player with 30 pts, 10 reb in a Game 7 since @kobebryant in 2002— Jeremy Lundblad (@JLundbladESPN) May 4, 2014
The second saw Indiana hold the Hawks without a field goal in the final 6:11 as part of a 14-2 run to close out the half. That run was all the Pacers needed, as Atlanta never got closer than seven points and stayed down double digits almost the entire second half.
The win is undoubtedly a relief in the interim. At least for a couple days, the speculation about Vogel's job status, Hibbert's months-long struggles and the looming specter of the Miami Heat can take pause. But it will only be the most temporary of reprieves.
Indiana took its first two regular-season meetings with the Wizards, both its wins coming by a combined 47 points. Those triumphs both came before the All-Star break—the cutoff point most often used to describe the Pacers' recent struggles.
Washington won the last meeting in the nation's capital in March. Washington will also come in rested following its trouncing of the Bulls and has two traditional bigs in Marcin Gortat and Nene that match up well with Hibbert and West.
However, a semblance of traditionalism is something the Pacers could revel in. Atlanta was able to stretch this series the full length by pulling Hibbert out of the paint and disrupting a rules-oriented, structurally sound system. Hibbert will be able to drop down on pick-and-rolls guarding Gortat, and even though Nene works well out of the high post, he is not a three-point threat.
The NBA playoffs are defined by their matchups. The Pacers survived their worst-possible Round 1 threat. Now we'll get to see whether Indiana's problems were rooted in Atlanta's unique style or if the internal fissures exposed this series are too deep from which to rebound.
NBA.com senior writer Steve Aschburner sized up Indiana's next challenge by noting the Wizards will be a toughest test, but that home court advantage still carries a lot of weight.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter @tylerconway22.