INDIANAPOLIS -- Paul George wasn't about to let his team make the same mistake twice on Friday night. After watching his Indiana Pacers blow a 13-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 5, George and his teammates kept telling each other the same message as the final minutes of Game 6's 101-83 victory against the Toronto Raptors arrived.
"We said we just got to keep scoring," George said after scoring 10 of his 21 points in the final 12 minutes. "We got to get a nice little distance, a nice little cushion early. But that's how it looked [in] Game 5 so we just told ourselves we just got to keep scoring, keep making plays, keep being in attack mode. And keep putting the ball in the hole."
The Pacers forced a Game 7 on Sunday night because they learned from their miscues. They walked into the fourth quarter with a seven-point lead and walked out with a feeling of renewed confidence heading into the biggest game of the season. After such a huge meltdown in Game 5, plenty of teams would have folded in the next game and been left wondering what might have been. Pacers head coach Frank Vogel never wavered in his belief that his team would rise to the challenge on Friday. After his team saw its playoff life flash before its eyes on Tuesday, Vogel remained steadfast in the belief that his team would move away from its demise instead of closer to it.
"I believe we can play with this team," Vogel said after tying up the series. "I have great respect for them, but I really believe we're hitting our stride at the right time, playing our best basketball of the season when it matters. And it's just one of those things that -- you just got to continue to believe in who you are. And believe that you can get the job done. We proved that through three quarters in Game 5, so that's why I was confident after that game."
The key for Vogel and the Pacers was that they didn't need to lean on George the way they did in Game 5. After George scored 39 points in 41 minutes on Tuesday, the Pacers found an offensive balance that hadn't been there before. All five starters scored in double figures as the Pacers outscored the Raptors 61-39 in the second half, a destruction that included an 18-0 run over the bulk of the fourth quarter.
"My job tonight was just to be a threat," George said. "Put pressure on them, try to. Pick them apart with passes. Move the ball, try to get them to shift their defense a little bit, and my teammates, they were the ones that really did the damage tonight. I had plays here and there but they were the ones that did most of the damage tonight."
After admitting how frustrated he was to look at the box score and see only nine points in the final quarter on Tuesday, George spent time after Game 6 watching a replay of a nice play by veteran Rodney Stuckey in the happy Pacers' locker room. In the aftermath of the Game 5 defeat, Vogel wanted to make sure his team knew it had to focus the entire game in order to win. He wanted them to close.
As a group, they did that on Friday night and they did it in part because players like Stuckey were able to move past the mental errors that crushed them down the stretch in Game 5. After shooting 1-for-10 and playing poorly down the stretch on Tuesday, Stuckey scored six of his eight points in the fourth quarter and was a difference-maker along with George and rookie Myles Turner with the game on the line.
"Tonight, we played for 48 minutes," Stuckey said. "That's pretty much what it was. We didn't let up, that was it. Last game we didn't play for 48 minutes. Tonight we did."
Now the Pacers have to summon that same spirit heading into what will be a raucous environment on Sunday night at Air Canada Centre. It's a game that George is looking forward to after the ups and downs of the past few days. The Pacers found new life by learning from the past. It will be up to George to make sure his group keeps the good times rolling in Toronto.
"It's like Game 1," George said. "We got to go in and impose our will early. They're going to drive and really have everything on their side. Being at home and the crowd going crazy, which fueled them in that fourth quarter [in Game 5]. So if we continue on how we did to start Game 5, taking the crowd out and making it just be about basketball, we'll be confident to leave Toronto with the series in our hands."