Reports of the Indiana Pacers' demise were greatly exaggerated.
After an up-and-down series against the Washington Wizards, the Pacers are through to the Eastern Conference Finals after a 93-80 victory in Washington, D.C. on Thursday night. They move on to an ECF rematch with the Miami Heat.
There's something to be said for having playoff experience and an abundance of talent. Indiana simply looked like the more composed, talented team in Game 6. The Pacers weren't at their best, but they got defensive stops when they needed to and went on quick offensive runs when they surrendered the lead in the second half.
They also accomplished one of the biggest keys in postseason road games: getting out to a quick lead. That takes the crowd out of the game. The Verizon Center fell silent for much of the first half as the Pacers jumped out to a 52-40 halftime lead. Indiana also needed a strong start to shake out the cobwebs from its embarrassing Game 5 loss.
The Pacers didn't help themselves as they sputtered to start the second half, though. The Wizards cut the lead down to seven points, 58-51, with a little under eight minutes to go in the third quarter. Washington was able to find a nice groove offensively and went on an 11-2 run:
However, the Pacers punched back with an 11-4 run to boost their lead back to 14 points, 69-55.
Rather than crawling back into their first-half hole, though, the Wizards stuck around. Slowly but surely they began chipping away at the Indiana lead. Although the Pacers went into the fourth quarter with a 71-63 lead, you got the sense that Washington was beginning to grab the momentum.
An 8-2 Wizards run to start the fourth closed the gap to two points, 73-71, and then a Bradley Beal three put Washington on top, 74-73, for the first time since it was up 8-7 three minutes into the first quarter.
At that point, though, the Wizards players seemed to shrink from the occasion. Rather than putting their foot firmly on the Pacers' throats, they allowed Indiana to go on a 12-2 run, undoing all of Washington's work to get back into the game.
This game illustrated the gulf between the Wizards and the elite of the Eastern Conference. Washington unquestionably has a bright future, but it needs to go through some playoff disappointment in order to grow as a franchise.
The future may reside in the nation's capital, but the present still calls Indianapolis home.
David West has been one of the Pacers' senior leaders all season long. After Indiana's listless Game 5, he was blunt in his criticism.
"We didn't show up to play," he said, per Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star. "I don't know if we thought we were just going to come in here and these guys were going to roll over...I just don't know where we were tonight."
As one of the tone-setters for the team, West took it upon himself to lead by example on the court Thursday night. He led all scorers with 29 points—18 of which came in the second half—on an impressive 13-of-26 from the field.
Buckner made the point that the Pacers needed to feed the power forward every time they had the ball:
West's performance covered for Paul George shooting 4-of-11 from the field en route to scoring 12 points.
Roy Hibbert wasn't great either, but miles better than what he's been in some of those historically bad postseason performances. He finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
Of course, that didn't stop CBSSports.com's Will Brinson and Grantland's Bill Barnwell from having some fun at the big man's expense:
Washington's explosive guard combo of Beal and John Wall scored a combined 28 points on 12-of-35 shooting.
NBA.com's Steve Aschburner thought that Beal should've listened to his earlier self when he devised his game plan for Thursday night:
Trevor Ariza, who's come up big for Washington at so many points this postseason, only made one of his five field-goal attempts, scoring six points.
The Wizards just didn't have that same kind of magic in Game 6.
And here we are. As bad as the Pacers have been, there was a certain inevitability to them making the Eastern Conference Finals, and from there, who knows what would happen, as Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling pondered:
Hibbert always seems to play well against Miami, and maybe the high stakes will help snap George and co. out of their collective funk. Or maybe the Pacers aren't that good after all?
The answer will be revealed in the next round.