ATLANTA (AP) — Three minutes from a far-sooner-than-expected summer vacation, the Indiana Pacers turned to their rock.
David West didn’t let them down.
Now, it’s back to Indianapolis for Game 7, the top-seeded Pacers giving themselves another chance to finally shake off the Atlanta Hawks.
West scored 24 points and led a 16-4 run to end the game, pushing Indiana to a 95-88 victory over the eighth-seeded Hawks that evened the series at three games apiece Thursday night.
Simply put, West refused to let the Pacers lose.
“When a team is making a run like that, and you’re dealing with an eight seed trying to knock off a one seed in their building, and the place is erupting on every play, it’s great to have somebody out there with that level of composure,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “He just really settled everybody down.
“He’s our rock,” Vogel added. “There’s no other way to put it.”
After losing at home for the second time in the series, Indiana faced elimination in Atlanta. When the Hawks pushed out to an 84-79 lead with just over 3 minutes remaining, cheered on by a raucous crowd that barely sat down in the second half, the Pacers’ improbable collapse seemed complete.
That’s when West took over.
He scored four straight points, sandwiched around a huge steal, and hit two more baskets in the final minute to send the series back to Indiana for a decisive game on Saturday.
Paul George also scored 24 points for the Pacers, who have shown a willingness to change their physical, pack-the-lane style to cope with the Hawks’ ability to spread the court.
It might be just enough to get them to the second round.
“We tried some different lineups,” West said. “Coach rolled the dice.”
While Roy Hibbert remained the starting center, he played only about 12 minutes for the second game in a row. Ian Mahinmi went nearly twice as long, giving Indiana more mobility in the lane, while C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland also got extensive minutes.
It worked. Atlanta bogged down offensively and made only 9 of 35 from beyond the 3-point arc.
“I told the guys, `If worse comes to worse, we’ve got to play park basketball,'” said West, who also led the Pacers with 11 rebounds and six assists, not to mention a couple of steals.
If there was a possible damper on Indiana’s night, it stemmed from a scuffle late in the first half. Atlanta’s Mike Scott got into it with Indiana’s George Hill under the basket after a missed shot, and the two shoved at each other in front of the Pacers bench. Replays showed George and a teammate taking a step onto the court, a violation of NBA rules, though they were quickly pushed back by the assistant coaches.
No punches were thrown. Scott and Hill were each assessed a technical foul and that was the end of it, at least during the game.
Vogel said he doesn’t expect any additional discipline from the league office, though there is precedent for a suspension.
“I’m not concerned about any suspensions until we hear something,” the coach said. “I don’t imagine there would be.”
Atlanta, playing perhaps its biggest home playoff game since the 1980s, was on the verge of a huge celebration when Jeff Teague knocked down a jumper with 3:16 to go for a five-point lead.
But the Pacers, led by West, showed some of the resolve they’ve lacked in a late-season swoon. After swishing a pair of free throws, he hustled back to swat the ball away from Atlanta’s Pero Antic. Making sure Indiana took advantage of the turnover, West popped a jumper from the top of the key.
Paul Millsap missed at the other end, and Hill burst into the lane to drop one in. Just like that, the Pacers were back up 85-84 with 1:58 remaining.
Antic tied it for the final time, 85-all, on a free throw with 1:24 remaining. But that was it for the Hawks.
West hit another jumper to put the Pacers ahead for good. Then, coming off a timeout, Lou Williams drove under the basket and tried to throw an outlet pass to Teague; instead, the ball went right to George. He was immediately fouled, made both free throws, and Teague missed again for the Hawks after a brilliant night to essentially seal it for the Pacers.
Teague scored 29 points, nearly pulling out a victory even with Atlanta shooting less than 36 percent from the field.
As it is, the Hawks will have to win for the third time at Indianapolis if they want to knock off the Pacers.
“Both teams have shown the ability to go on the road and win,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “That’s the challenge for us now.”
NOTES: Millsap and Williams were the only other Atlanta players in double figures, both with 16 points. … Lance Stephenson scored 21 points for the Pacers. … Millsap had 18 rebounds.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963