What a season it was for the Indiana Pacers. Now, 49 hard-fought wins and 32 disappointing losses later, they will find out whether they have what it takes to go all the way as they face the sixth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the opening round of the Eastern Conference NBA playoffs on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indy.
While the Pacers started out hot earlier in the season, recent performances have raised questions. The team lost 6 of their last 7 games by an average of 13.8 points, and fell behind by as many as 20 points in each. In doing so, they squandered a chance to seize the number-2 seed in the Eastern Conference. This is not an encouraging sign. Conventional wisdom suggests that marching backwards into playoffs is not a great recipe for success. As the saying goes, it’s not how you start, but how you finish.
But despite the recent lapses, this is a Pacers team that still believes in itself. Or, as Pacers forward David West recently put it, “This is a new season, guys are refocused and re-energized, but again we’ve got to come out and perform. This is the only chance you have to get it right. In the playoffs, it you don’t get it right, you’ll get bounced and you’ll be going home in 10 days.”
But the manner in which they entered the playoffs is probably not what they envisioned last year, having just won their first playoff series in 7 years and re-signed both Hibbert and point guard George Hill in the summer of 2012.
This is a team that was forced to overcome adversity right out of the gate with the loss of Danny Granger for the entire season with a knee injury. He tried unsuccessfully to come back. But what they lost in Granger they more than compensated for by having one of the toughest defenses in the league. For a while, they were one of the hottest teams around.
But then things took a turn for the worse. And lately, they have not looked like the same team that started off hot. For starters, Paul George, the team’s lone marquee player and leading scorer with an average of 17.4 points per game, has not been his usual self as he has struggled with an abdominal injury. Add to this the fact that he has logged far less playing time this season (around 4 hours) than in his first two seasons combined. But after a 3-day rest, George has said recently that he’s starting feel like his old self.
“To put it in perspective, as much as we’ve been struggling, we’re still playing good basketball,” he said. “We’ve been down 20 in all those games and still have had a chance to win them. That’s hard to do.”
But George isn’t the only Pacer who’s struggled lately.
George Hill, who recently injured his left groin, was held out of last Friday’s workout by trainers. Should he play on Sunday he will likely be defending Hawks guard Jeff Teague.
Hill insisted he could have played if it was game day and that he will be ready to go Sunday when he’s likely to be defending another Indy native, Hawks guard Jeff Teague. Coach Vogel also said Hill would play Sunday.
Ten-year veteran/power forward David West, who was sidelined for 5 consecutive games in March, is reportedly healthy again and ready to go. And Roy Hibbert was starting to show signs of wear and tear recently despite playing his best basketball in the final 4 weeks of the regular season.
The team was recently given an unplanned day off in light of the unfortunate events in Boston. And coach Vogel then decided to hold his starters out of the final game of the season, which turned out to be a 105-95 road loss to Philadelphia.
In the best case, the extra rest will have the team in prime condition as they enter the playoffs. In the worst case, they will be rusty.
But while the Pacers looked like anything a championship-caliber team entering the playoffs, the 44-38 Atlanta Hawks didn’t exactly look like world beaters either. Hawks Coach Larry Drew’s decision to hold his starters out of the final two games of the season produced an unsurprising result: Back-to-back losses and a blown opportunity to clinch the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. So now they get the 6th seed and face the Pacers’ stingy defense.
But at this point, the Hawks should probably be more concerned with getting healthy than which team they will face. They will need every bit of health they can muster to endure the long playoff grind. Ditto Pacers.
The reality is both teams are looking to regain something that was lost in recent weeks. For the Pacers, it’s time to block out all the media noise and focus on the task at hand, which is preparing for game 1 of the series. It’s been quite a journey, one that has taken them this far. Where they go from here depends on whether they can get back to playing the kind of basketball they proved they can play earlier in the season. Whatever happens moving forward, the arrow is up for this re-emergent Pacers team.
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