ATLANTA — The first thing to understand about Philips Arena’s visiting locker room is that it is terrifically claustrophobic following an NBA playoff basketball game, cameras and towels and people — so many people and their various moving parts and motivations — packed into a dimly lit space, all following a similar routine. One of the cream-colored walls is painted with the Atlanta Dream logo, and on the whiteboard are Pundit squares of shooting and rebounding numbers underscored with blue-collar calculations such as challenged shots and defensive deflections. Welcome to the bleary aftermath of playoff basketball.
Five suitcases were laid out in the middle of this particular locker room, the Indiana Pacers’ locker room, because the visitors are headed home. Beside the bags stood an equipment manager taking names of the owners of any feet that dared kick the neatly folded golden jerseys on the floor. Everything needs to be packed accordingly, everything needs to be in order, because the Pacers are headed north and time works on a tight budget around these parts. Pundit squares, suitcases and the jostling of boom microphones — this is playoff basketball at the tail end of a one-game road trip, and more travel awaits. Within the hour, the Pacers will load onto a bus and exit this arena for good, at least until next season.
It isn’t the worst of trips following a closely contested Game 6 in hostile territory, because though superstar guard Paul George, forward David West and the rest of Indiana’s complementary parts are headed back to Indianapolis, their playoff fate still remains undecided. The Pacers downed the Atlanta Hawks 95-88 in a back-and-forth game on Thursday night to force a decisive Game 7.
Now, they are headed home with business to attend to.
"They overcame a few furious runs by the Hawks, especially late in the third quarter," Indiana coach Frank Vogel, who led his team to a 56-26 regular season record to capture the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, said of his players. "Paul George was in foul trouble and they just brought the house down with a few plays, and our guys could have wilted at that point. But they didn’t. They toughed it out and regained control of the game and we got a much-needed win."
There’s little shame in playoff survival, and the Pacers, with ice packs taped to knees and elbows following a helter-skelter hike down Philips Arena’s red-stained path, are still kicking. Three hundred and sixty minutes into this weathering seven-game series with the eighth-seeded Hawks, there’s still a pulse. Toughed it out. Survival. This is not the typical language saved for an 8-versus-1 matchup, but, in case the 3-3 series tie didn’t give it away, this is not the typical first-round series top seeds deal with.
The Pacers are pushing back against history by trying to avoid becoming the sixth No. 1 seed to lose its first-round series in the NBA’s modern playoff era — and the third in the past four seasons — and for a while it looked like it was going to be a futile effort.
When George went to the bench with his fourth foul (a third-quarter foul he openly contested on the bench), the Hawks, backed by an energized crowd bearing the freshly revived, classic red logo of the Pacman-Hawk, went into high gear.
"That’s when they’re at their highest, when Teague is penetrating and attacking off the bounce. That’s when this team is special," George said of the Hawks’ run. "And he was able to do that (after the fourth foul)."
The Hawks concluded the third quarter with a three-point lead. They would eventually build the lead up to five with just over three minutes remaining — three minutes from that aforementioned history and saddling the Pacers with an uncomfortable trip back north. Philips Arena, surely, wouldn’t allow this to slip away. Not this time. Not after being bounced in the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons.
Atlanta, in a surprising turn of statistical events given its reputation of serving up playoff disappointment, entered the game with an 8-1 record in home close-out opportunities. And if it weren’t for George and West, that five-point lead would have been safe.
Down the stretch in the fourth quarter, West pulled his All-Star guard aside and they essentially made a verbal pact. They were going to handle things from here on out. Tag team. If they were heading back to Indy, a Game 7 was coming along for the ride.
From that three-minute mark, with the Hawks holding onto that relatively comfortable five-point lead (all things considered), West became the go-to option. He poured in 12 fourth-quarter points, including eight in the final three minutes. He hit his free throws, stretched the defense out to 19 feet and scored in the lane. George finished with nine points in the final frame — he and West both finished with 24 overall — and, along with point guard George Hill and Lance Stephenson, they closed on a 16-4 run.
"We remained poised. We stayed together. They went on a great run, the crowd was all into this game. We stayed poised. We didn’t allow that to break us or cause us to panic," said George, who has been one of the most valuable players during these playoffs, posting an NBA-leading 1.2 win shares. "I mean, we were just going with who had the hot hand. D-West had the mismatch and he was gonna create a lot of offense for us. It’s a reason why he’s one of the best power forwards this league. Each game, we understand how big of an advantage he has. And it was just glaring tonight."
So back to Indy it goes.
With the Hawks giving away the late lead — or did the Pacers simply take it? — the narrative tug-of-war continues. There is a no-man’s land of truth somewhere between the 500-plus miles that separate these two cities, but there’s very little nuance at the poles: either the Pacers are playing horrid basketball and collapsing (the go-to national take) or the Hawks are finally healthy and playing exactly like a No. 3 or 4 seed in the East would in this situation. Regardless of which side should be held more accountable for this unlikely Game 7, the reality is the Hawks used up their best chance to clinch by letting the Pacers escape Philips in one piece, and though the 8-seed is far from finished after taking the last two games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, odds are going to favor the top dogs.
"It’s not gonna be easy," said Hill, who finished with 14 points in Game 6. "It only makes us better. It makes us realize that every game counts. You can’t take any team lightly. Just because that’s an 8-seed team down there, they’re playing some of the best ball at the right time. They don’t play like an 8-seed team. They shoot the ball very well. Coach (Budenholzer) has them passing the ball very well, moving it. Playing great defense. We’ve gotta continue to respect them, but have that energy and effort."
Added West: "They’ve burned us a couple times (at home). We’ve had some stretches where we didn’t put the ball in the basket. We’ve played all year for this, to get Game 7 in our building, the energy is going to be great. We just have to handle our business."
There was plenty of business to be handled late Thursday night: whiteboards to be erased, questions to be answered into microphones and folded uniforms to protect at all costs. This is playoff commerce. The experience up to this point has been a nightmare for the No. 1 seed — so inconsistent and grueling that the second-seeded Miami Heat, who swept their opening-round series, look fairly wise for relinquishing the top seed by resting their starters on the final nights of the regular season — but there’s no going back to square one. Everything is in its place.
When asked if his team had played its best basketball yet in the postseason, Paul George looked up from the ice bags strapped to both knees with his mind made up.
"Not at all. Not even close. So many areas where we can improve. But it’s the playoffs, and it’s all about wins at this point," he said. " … It’s zero-zero. It’s one game. It’s tournament time. One game and go home. We’ve gotta play a great game, because we know as well as they know, they’re capable of beating us and they know that they can beat us on our home floor."
If he could have seen past the cameras and the elbow-to-elbow crowd packed into his personal space, George would have seen his teammates, showered and worn, icing aches and complimenting those who contributed to the winning effort. Based on their resume, they shouldn’t be here, not in this precarious position. But there’s one sentiment that each Pacers player seems to be taking solace in: they haven’t brought their best hand to the table.
The question now: Will they take it home with them for Game 7, or for good?