Staring a 3-1 deficit down the barrel, the Pacers finally showed the grit they've been desperately missing, stepping up in the fourth quarter and pulling off a 91-88 win over the Hawks to even their first-round series at 2-2.
• Someone finally stepped up for the Pacers. When Charles Barkley called the Pacers "wussies" on national television last week, he wasn't talking about David West.
West might have been struggling just as much as any Pacer at the time (well, any except Roy Hibbert), but the bruising power forward's toughness and relentless drive are impossible to question. Since coming to Indiana in 2011, the 33-year-old has been a veteran presence and big brother to the team's young, talented nucleus. He's set a standard with his intensity on the floor and professionalism off it. And when the Pacers need a big bucket in the fourth, the sure-handed big man is usually the players the team turns to.
With Indiana facing mounting confidence issues and chemistry issues heading into Game 4, the team needed someone to step up more than ever. The Pacers got a host of bounce-back performances Saturday, including Paul George (24 points on 10-of-18 shooting) and George Hill (15 points on 5-of-8), but West's proved most pivotal of all. He uncharacteristically missed two critical free throws with under three minutes remaining that would have tied the game. Furious with himself, West shook his head and muttered to himself as he ran down the floor in disbelief, unleashing a scowl that could melt rookies. It would only be a few more minutes until West ran down the court with a scowl again -- but this time a celebratory one.
With 1:33 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Pacers had just taken the lead off a go-ahead three from Paul George. Moments later, George came up with a steal and Indiana regained possession. The Pacers had a chance to take their biggest lead since the second quarter and needed to capitalize on the late opportunity to put the chasing Hawks away. With nothing developing and the shot clock winding down, the ball ended up in West's hands beyond the arc, an unusual spot for him to catch it. But despite hitting just four three-pointers all season, West stepped into the three-point try in rhythm, confidently knocking down the triple and holding the follow through to give Indy a four-point lead (1:51 mark in video below).
Later, with 8.1 seconds remaining, West stymied Paul Millsap's spinning attempt at the rim and hauled in the rebound, helping secure the series-saving win. West finished Saturday with 18 points (7-of-13 shooting), five rebounds and three steals, but his clutch play in the fourth quarter -- something Indy has been desperately missing this series -- accounted for much more.
Indiana has been stranded at rock bottom for weeks. West might be the only one strong enough to pull them up.
Obligatory Roy Hibbert update: This wouldn't be a Pacers playoff post without at least a quick examination of the maligned center's performance. In Game 4, Indiana's struggling center was... not bad. He totaled six points, three rebounds and two blocks in 25 minutes, but didn't turn the ball over once and shot above .500 (3-of-5) for the first time since March 19. Hibbert was on the bench the entire fourth quarter -- but at least he wasn't sulking on it. Indy's center could be seen engaged, clapping and cheering his teammates on. We aren't to the point where Hibbert is helping the Pacers, but at least he isn't hurting them to the same degree as in Games 1-3.
• It's time we finally talk about Paul Millsap. The Pacers' plight might be the most compelling storyline of the first round, but it's time we give it up for the player who has helped put the No. 1 seed on its heels.
Paul Millsap was at it again in Game 4, scoring a game-high 29 points (10-of-18 shooting) and grabbing seven rebounds. The All-Star power forward has exploited the Pacers all series, averaging 21.7 points and eight boards against a litany of defenders. With his newly implemented three-point shot (35.8 percent this season), Millsap has expanded his offensive game this season, in turning making him a difficult matchup for the Pacers and everyone else. Roy Hibbert, West and Luis Scola are too slow to keep up with the 6-foot-8 forward and Paul George is too light to bang with him in the post (and needed too much on the perimeter).
That's led Millsap to being a steady and versatile force for the Hawks against the Pacers. He's helped spread the floor with his three-point shooting and he's helped keep Indiana honest by banging in the paint. Millsap was the steal of the offseason when the Hawks signed him a to a two-year, $19 million deal and he's delivered well beyond expectations, earning a place on the Eastern Conference All-Star team and guiding Atlanta to the playoffs despite the loss of Al Horford in December.
Millsap's 29 points came in a losing effort Saturday, but his play in this first round has helped the Hawks move within striking range of completing a colossal first round upset.
• Can the Hawks bounce back to make history? Only five No. 8 seeds in NBA history have won a first-round series, but the Hawks still have a good chance at becoming No. 6 despite Saturday's loss.
The two teams will next meet in Indianapolis for Game 5 on Monday. Here's a look at the five other eight seeds that pulled off the stunning upsets:
2007: Golden State Warriors def. Dallas Mavericks, 4-2: Don Nelson's Warriors pulled off one of the most stunning -- and entertaining -- upsets in NBA history when they downed the Mavericks in six games, becoming the first No. 8 seed in history to win a seven-game series.
1999: New York Knicks def. Miami Heat, 3-2: Allan Houston and the Knicks took down the top-seeded Heat in a best-of-five series and ran all the way to the NBA Finals, only to fall to Tim Duncan and the Spurs in five games.
1994: Denver Nuggets def. Seattle Supersonics, 3-2: Remember Dikembe Mutumbo lying on the floor, clutching the basketball and screaming after the Nuggets' Game 5 win? How can you forget. This season marks the 20th anniversary of the Nuggets' miraculous upset.
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