INDIANAPOLIS -- Those who look at the box score will never know how hard it was. Casual observers will never understand how important it was. The Indiana Pacers rode their starting-turned-backup point guard Darren Collison and a 36-16 fourth quarter to a 105-87 win. With it, came a 4-1 first-round series win over the Orlando Magic, and Indiana moved on to the second round for the first time since Reggie Miller wore the blue and gold.
“A huge step for our franchise,” Pacer coach Frank Vogel said after the game. That it is.
The clock wound down, and a sellout crowd chanted “Beat the Heat." Something more had been accomplished than just a playoff series win. A beleaguered franchise with attendance problems finally re-established a connection with its fan base that had been broken by so many misdeeds so many years ago.
“It was amazing when they started the chant,” Danny Granger said with a laugh. “We couldn’t hear. The other team couldn’t hear. I think the floor was shaking.”
It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t pretty. Heavily favored against a Magic team without Dwight Howard, the Pacers spent sizable portions of this series looking both young and flawed. Tuesday night’s win was no different. A 10-0 Magic run late in the second quarter left the Pacers up by only three points heading to half. Then, when Jameer Nelson’s 15 points usurped Indiana’s series-long third-quarter dominance, the Pacers entered the final stanza trailing 71-69.
Enter Darren Collison.
Collison, who had lost his starting job to George Hill late in the regular season, delivered an absolutely stellar fourth-quarter performance.
With the score tied 73-73, the third-year point guard scored or assisted on the Pacers’ next 12 points in a 12-5 run that left Indiana up 87-80. From there, the Pacers continued to push as the Magic seemed to finally run out of bullets. By the time Collison stole the ball and went in for an uncontested dunk with just less than the two minutes left, the Pacers' run was 27-12 and their lead was 100-85. Collison finished the quarter with 15 points on a perfect 7-for-7 from the floor, three assists and a steal.
“I just thought he had a different gear,” David West said. “Everybody else wasn’t at that gear he was tonight. I thought it powered us down the stretch.”
For Indiana, this win meant something.
"You’ve got to feel good about this, because there are a lot of guys who never make the playoffs," West said. "There are a ton of guys that never won a series. From that regard, you’ve got to be thankful.”
But not satisfied.
“There is an eagerness,” West said of his teammates, “because of the youthful nature of the group, to test the unknown.”
While Vogel and others weren't willing to assume that the Miami Heat, up three games to one on the New York Knicks, would be their next opponent, there's a strong possibility that it will be. And with the Heat, the Pacers will face a much stiffer challenge. No doubt, many will be predicting the “gentleman’s sweep” or worse. If that happens, it happens. For this franchise, in this time, there are stakes that aren’t measured in wins and losses.
“You just don’t know what’s going to happen," West said. "You don’t know what the next step or phase could be. While we’re in this moment, we’ve just have to take full advantage of it. Prepare to the best of our ability. Give it our all.”
Tim Donahue covers the Indiana Pacers for 8 Points, 9 Seconds, part of the TrueHoop Network.