Pacers survive but flaws remain

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Pacers formed their customary circle outside the locker room, just off the tunnel they would run through to play a game that would dictate their immediate future. As they stood, arms on each other's shoulders, two voices rose above the others.

David West and Rasual Butler, or the Old Dawgs as George Hill refers to them, had something to say.

"They were like, 'Fight and give everything you have,'" Hill said. "'Put your backs to the wall, throw punches. At the end of the day, win or lose we can all say we gave it our best.'"

The Pacers weren't supposed to be in a Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks, especially not against the Hawks, who finished six games below .500 during the regular season.

But there they stood, all the pressure solely on the team that president Larry Bird put together with the expectation that it would contend for an Eastern Conference title. A loss would put coach Frank Vogel's job in jeopardy and increase the likelihood that the core wouldn't be back together again next season.

The Pacers silenced those possibilities -- at least for the time being -- when they beat the Hawks 92-80 to advance to a second-round matchup against the Washington Wizards.

"It was good enough to win, but I don't think it was the best game that we played," Hill said. "We still have a lot we have to get better on."

At some point, if -- and it's a big if at this point -- the Pacers advance to the NBA Finals as many expected they would five months ago, they can look back at how this series forced them to adapt and account for their shortcomings, many of which were striking over the past two weeks.

At times you wondered if the Pacers knew who they were during the first six games.

Center Roy Hibbert was physically challenged and seemed to virtually check out at times. Vogel had to stop being stubborn and be willing to be flexible with his rotation after Atlanta's spread offense often left the Pacers scrambling, confused and frustrated.

"This was a long series," Pacers All-Star forward Paul George said. "We're happy to get over this hump and get ready for the next task, which is preparing for the Wizards."

There was a legit argument for Hibbert to be permanently be planted on the bench. Vogel refused to completely shut him down. He would have faced the risk of completely losing Hibbert for the future with that approach.

Hibbert is a delicate player who needs to be handled with care. Vogel let Hibbert's production dictate his playing time. He gave the Pacers eight points and three rebounds in nine first-quarter minutes.

And as important as Hibbert's final stat line of 13 points and seven rebounds ended up being, his defensive impact is what the Pacers had been longing for.

The one-time presumptive NBA Defensive Player of the Year blocked five shots and had the jump-shooting Hawks thinking twice before attacking the basket when they decided to enter the paint.

"We've been encouraging him," West said. "We just kept telling him that the next game we're going to have your best game of the series. He just made an impact. We knew he would at some point."

Hibbert's defensive play had a trickle-down effect, so much so that the Pacers played with the type of intensity that characterized the unit that led the league in field goal defense during the regular season. Hill probably ran several miles chasing Kyle Korver around screens. George's length -- and Ian Mahinmi's block at the end of the half -- gave Jeff Teague problems. And the Pacers did a decent job contesting Atlanta's jump shooters. The Hawks were 11-of-44 on 3-pointers.

"It's not easy playing at team that shoots 44 3s," Vogel said. "They had us spread out and scrambling. But they rose to the challenge. Rim protection was exceptional."

Saturday was step in the right direction for the Pacers, but not a big enough one to make you believe they've restored their dominance. Now they're going from facing a 3-point shooting team to one that has one of the best young backcourts in the league in John Wall and Bradley Beal and a frontcourt that matches up well against them.

"It'll be a mistake for us to relax and be happy with that," Hill said. "I still don't feel like we played our best ball. That's to come. We just have to continue to focus on the task and continue to get better."