In the first of five Game 7s this weekend, the Indiana Pacers downed the Atlanta Hawks with relative ease Saturday, winning 92-80. Paul George led the Pacers with 30 points and Roy Hibbert (13 points, seven rebounds) made his first meaningful contribution of the series. Indiana advances to face the Washington Wizards in the second round.
• Back from the dead, but is Indiana back to contention? The Pacers are the NBA's version of Frankenstein contenders. After losing his pulse toward the end of the year, Larry Bird tried to reanimate Indiana with a science experiment gone terribly wrong, bringing in Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum for the stretch run. The results were frightening. The Pacers weren't the same, losing 13 of their final 23 games. Sure, they were technically still alive and the No. 1 seed in the East entering the postseason -- but looks told a different story. This was a team in disarray; a shell of its former self. The fact that they needed seven games to dispatch the 37-45 Hawks in the first round tells you everything. Roy Hibbert went two games without scoring and six without mattering -- at least in a positive way. The rest of the team's roster took turns disappearing, some more often than others. Indy's defense, which led the league during the regular season, suddenly resembled one befitting of the lottery.
Down 3-2, they survived Game 6 in Atlanta after the Hawks fell apart in the final minutes. That gave Indiana one final shot at redemption with a winner-take-all clash on its home floor. A chance to prove it's not the monster it has been made out to be the last few weeks. A chance to avoid infamy and salvage a season long pronounced dead.
The Pacers seized the opportunity from the start. Hibbert, who hadn't played well since March, scored more points in the first quarter (eight) than in Games 4-6 combined. George, who has been good, but not great all series (welcome to the Kevin Durant treatment! ) looked like the player that was an MVP contender earlier this year, finishing with 30 points and 11 rebounds.
And the defense, which had been more porous than a middle schooler this series, held the Hawks to 30.4 percent shooting in a stifling effort. The Pacers led by as many as 17, outrebounded Atlanta 39-26, and showed the fire that'd been missing since the team was hastily resurrected before the deadline.
Should this Game 7 victory convince you everything is hunky-dory with the Pacers and they're still the Heat's No. 1 challenger to a three-peat? Sure, if you also believe Kevin Durant is an unreliable basketball player.
One win doesn't cure all, but it does keep the Pacers alive. The second round will show us if Indiana can be fully revived to contender form or if the team's mad experiment gone wrong will be too much to overcome.
• Hey, Roy Hibbert! There's a reason why social media aficionado Roy Hibbert has tweeted just once in the past month. Twitter has been used as an open mic for Roy Hibbert jokes for weeks. The zingers have come in droves and the memes and one-liners have flowed like water. Everyone with 140 characters to spare has hopped on the Hate On Hibbert bandwagon in recent weeks.
Reading a negative comment about yourself can be a brutal experience -- even when it's from an anonymous user with a poor grasp of the English language. Now imagine being saturated in jokes at your expense. It's one thing to be struggling at your job -- but what if everyone on TV and the Internet are talking nonstop about just how terrible you've been? Yeah, I wouldn't check my mentions either.
To the Pacers' credit, they've done an admirable job of sticking with Hibbert. He played less than 25 minutes combined in Games 5 and 6, but he kept his place in the staring lineup and was given ample chances to snap out of his funk. Problem was, the slump seemed neverending. No matter how many chances Hibbert got -- how many bunnies he attempted -- he just couldn't get it going. It was like watching Chuck Knoblauch trying to make a throw to second or a golfer with the yips yank a four-foot putt. It was paralysis by analysis at its worst.
That's what made Hibbert's breakthrough in Game 7 so refreshing. He'd shot 30.3 percent in Games 1-6 and averaged four points and 3.2 rebounds -- not to mention, he'd also been a massive defensive liability. But against the Hawks on Saturday, Hibbert resembled the center that made his first All-Star team this year, totaling 13 points (6-of-10 shooting), seven rebounds and five blocks. He was active, smiling and effective -- three characteristics that had been foreign of late.
Hibbert's 31 minutes in Game 7 were the most he had played against the Hawks in 11 meetings this season. Frank Vogel finally had reason to leave him on the floor without being petrified of the ramifications. Now Hibbert can return to Twitter and do the same.
• The Hawks fought valiantly. This first-round series was a terrific showing for Atlanta Hawks basketball, which is amid the first year of a drastic transition and has a great inaugural season off of which it can build.
The Hawks' shaky 2014 playoff resumé has been well-documented. They are the only team under .500 to make the playoffs. They went 2-10 in February. They lost their best player in December. And the team's front office wasn't even that concerned with making the postseason in the first place. They were supposed to roll over for the Pacers in the first round, bow to the regular-season juggernauts and end their season without much noise.
Instead, they came dangerously close to becoming the sixth No. 8 seed in history to topple a No. 1. Atlanta pushed Indiana to the brink, had the Pacers just minutes away from elimination in Game 6 and forced the NBA's best defense to its knees with creative design. The Hawks played small, shot a ton of three-pointers (a playoff-record 44 in Game 7) and put the Pacers miles out of their comfort zone.
But heart, hustle and elbow grease only go so far and the top-seeded Pacers ultimately prevailed. Indiana eventually adapted to Atlanta's offensive schemes and finally got the production out of its stars it had sorely been missing. But the Hawks, who were postseason underachievers for so many years, finally produced more than promised in the playoffs, even if their efforts didn't result in a second-round series.
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