Pacers get their wish, for what it’s worth
The Pacers have played 202 playoff games in the NBA, but have never played a Game 7 on their home court.
They will on Saturday, when they close out their first-round series with Atlanta, one way or another. They declared earning home court advantage their mission from the first day of training camp, but they had the Eastern Conference finals in mind, not a first-round matchup with Atlanta. Still, they have it.
Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.
The Pacers have already lost twice to the Hawks in this series at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, so a third wouldn’t be that great of a shock. There’s a unique type of pressure that goes with playing a close-out game on your home court, as the Hawks discovered on Thursday. They had their worst shooting game of the series (36 percent from the field, 26 percent from three-point range), and it wasn’t just because the Pacers defense was better.
All those giddy expectations and assumptions tend to fray focus and tighten shooting arms. Now it’s the Pacers’ turn to deal with them.
“We played all year for this, to get Game 7s in our building,” David West said. “We just have to handle our business.”
Nobody handles business like West, who grabbed his teammates by the scruff of their collective collar on his way to finishing with 24 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. He scored eight points in the final three minutes, when the Pacers came back from a five-point deficit to win by seven. He started the run with a quick burst that turned the game – two foul shots, a steal at the other end, and then a 19-footer. Suddenly, it was a one-point deficit with 2:34 left.
West got the game’s biggest field goal when he drove left from the top of the key and hit a running right-hander off his left foot, displaying more agility than a 6-9 power forward is supposed to have. That one provided a two-point lead with 46 seconds left, and the Pacers held on from the foul line.
West reiterated a key point about clutch playoff games. It’s not about frenzy or even energy as much as it’s about poise and shot-making. So, can they deliver that Saturday evening?
History says probably, because the Pacers won two of their three homecourt Game 7s in the ABA. But then that’s ABA history.
In 1969, in a first-round matchup with Kentucky, they came back from a 3-1 deficit to win Game 7 at the Coliseum, 120-111 before a franchise record crowd of 11,005 – including 1,894 who bought standing room only tickets. Bob Netolicky led with 32 points and 16 rebounds.
Tom Thacker, who still drives up from Cincinnati to attend some games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, was the X-factor. Playing on 90 minutes sleep because he had reported from National Guard duty at Fort Knox in Kentucky, the NBA veteran scored a pro career high of 19 points and limited Kentucky guard Darrel Carrier to 16 on 5-of-18 shooting.
It was just the first round, but was considered a big enough deal that coach Slick Leonard was carried off the court on the shoulders of his players.
In 1971, the Pacers overcame another 3-1 deficit to tie their second-round series with Utah, but lost Game 7 at the Coliseum, 108-101 before another sellout audience.
Leonard switched the lineup in that series, bringing captain Freddie Lewis off the bench and starting Billy Keller and Warren Armstrong, but it didn’t pan out. The Pacers led by seven points at the half, but Utah hit 17-of-23 shots in the third quarter to take command of the game. Keller led the scoring with 33 points.
Champagne had been put on ice in the Pacers locker room to celebrate a return trip to the ABA finals. The players drank it anyway, but it didn’t go down as well.
In 1974, the core of the teams that had won three ABA titles enjoyed its last peak moment when it closed out San Antonio, 86-79, in Game 7 of the second round.
The Pacers hit just 24 percent of their shots and trailed by 13 points at halftime. Leonard had put in a new offense for the game, but went back to his standard system in the second half, and the Pacers outscored the Spurs 57-37. The frontline of Mel Daniels, George McGinnis and Roger Brown combined for 58 points 44 rebounds, dominating the Spurs’ unit that included future Hall of Famer George Gervin.
The momentum didn’t carry over, though. The Pacers fell behind 3-0 to Utah in the ABA finals, came back to tie the series, then lost Game 7 in Salt Lake City 109-87. Brown, Daniels and Lewis were traded or released after the season, and the Pacers rebuilt around McGinnis.
What all this means for Saturday’s game is uncertain, other than the fact home court won’t guarantee victory. But these Pacers, of all teams, should be aware of that already.