INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George always expected the Indiana Pacers to make it back to the playoffs.
So when they clinched a spot with Wednesday’s 104-86 victory over Atlanta’s backups, the four-time All-Star didn’t celebrate.
Instead, after scoring 12 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter, George and most of his teammates shook hands and traded high-fives, knowing another postseason matchup against LeBron James and the defending champs will be a bigger challenge.
“We have to go out and challenge them and play them straight up. It’s going to be tough,” George said. “They’ve been struggling as of late, but they’re still one of the best teams in this league and have one of the best players in the world. It’s going to be a fun matchup.”
George still laments two conference finals losses to James’ Heat when he was still playing with Miami.
But after an incredibly erratic season, the Pacers should be thrilled to clinch the No. 7 seed in the East and still have a chance to continue playing.
All it took to reach the postseason was five straight wins, George averaging nearly 31 points in those wins and a little help from George’s teammates against Atlanta’s overmatched B team.
The Hawks benched five of their top six players, and the Pacers took full advantage.
Jeff Teague finished with 19 points and seven assists against his former team before leaving with 2:08 to play after appearing to injure his left ankle. Myles Turner added 18 points, eight rebounds and six blocks. Recently signed Lance Stephenson had four points, 10 rebounds and six assists in 23 minutes.
And now the Pacers have the longest winning streak in the East.
“We had an uphill climb in the sense that we had to win out, our last five games,” coach Nate McMillan said. “It’s a relief and an excitement to be going into a new season.”
Ersan Ilyasova scored 15 points to lead the Hawks, whose four-game winning streak ended. Jose Calderon scored 12 points.
Yet for most of the night, they battled hard.
After trailing 50-43 at halftime and 65-49 midway through the fourth quarter, the Hawks cut the deficit to 92-84 with 5:32 left. But George made a 19-foot turnaround jumper to start the 7-2 run that closed out the game.
“Their activity and their energy was pretty high,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said, referring to the Pacers. “I thought our guys tried to match it. The effort was great, we just weren’t quite with it tonight.”
Pacers: George has scored 20 or more points in 12 straight games. He finished the season with 1,774 points, passing Reggie Miller (1,751) for No. 5 on the franchise’s single-season scoring list. And with five 3s, George also tied Miller (195) for the third highest single-season total in the Pacers’ NBA history. … Indiana has made the playoffs six times in seven years. … Al Jefferson and Glenn Robinson both sat out with injuries.
Hawks: The five starters in Wednesday’s game began the day with a combined total of 24 starts for Atlanta this season. … The Hawks had 20 turnovers and were outscored 25-3 in points off turnovers. … Atlanta’s three-game streak with 30 or more assists also ended. The Hawks finished with 19.
Budenholzer didn’t provide much detail about Dwight Howard’s injured back. But he doesn’t believe it will limit Howard in the playoffs.
Teague’s injury created the third scare of the night for the Pacers.
Twice in the first half, George landed awkwardly on his leg. He never left the game and didn’t allow the potential injuries to impact his play.
Teague’s injury looked worse as he limped around until McMillan called timeout. Afterward, McMillan called the injury a “tweak” and said Teague should be fine for Game 1. Teague became the first Pacers player to start 82 games since Mike Dunleavy in 2007-08.
Pacers: Open first-round action Saturday at Cleveland.
Hawks: Will play Game 1 of its first-round series Sunday at Washington.