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Pacers: Bring on the Wizards


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David West isn’t worried about the past.

His concern is the present.

Tonight, the top-seeded Indiana Pacers continue their bid for an NBA title in Game 1 of a second-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the No. 5 seed Washington Wizards.

Whether the Indiana Pacers turned a competitive corner by turning back eighth-seeded Atlanta in brutal first-round series, West makes no declaration. Because reflecting on the past is not how they are approaching the present.

“We’re not really thinking about that,” West said as the Pacers prepare for the series opener in Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. “We’re just focused on moving forward and thinking about what we’ve done during the last game.

“We’re going to use some of the things we did defensively to set us forward. We haven’t really thought about where we were.”

Where the Pacers were prior to Saturday’s Game 7 against Atlanta was the brink of elimination. They trailed 3-2 in the series before rallying for a 4-3 win and, in the process avoiding the ignominy of becoming only the sixth No. 1 seed in league history to lose in the first round.

Indiana, which struggled the final two months of the regular season after racing to a 46-10 start, closed the series with an inspired 92-80 win in the first ever Game 7 played on its home court.

Paul George had a career-playoff-high 30 points, and Lance Stephenson and George Hill contributed 19 and 15 points, respectively. But by far the most encouraging performance came from embattled center Roy Hibbert, who — for a night, at least — showed flashes of his former All-Star self.

A non-factor through the first six games, the 7-foot-2 Hibbert had series-high totals of 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots — a stark contrast to a scoreless, two-rebound, one-block effort in Game 6.

He entered the night with per game series averages of 4.0 points and 3.2 rebounds and was shooting only 3.3 percent from the field. He was 6 of 10 on Saturday.

“It felt good. I’ve been in Game 7s before,” said Hibbert, who’s well-documented struggles began around the All-Star break. “We just had to close the game out and make sure they didn’t get close. It took a lot of figuring out.

“They’re a good team. No one said it was going to be easy.”

It wasn’t.

The league’s best home team during the regular season, the Pacers twice squandered home court advantage and had to win twice on the road to get it back. They also had to win twice in a row to rally from a 3-2 deficit.

Ultimately, they did it with defense (Atlanta shot 30.4 percent on Saturday), they did it with Hibbert, they did it with West (13 rebounds and six blocks in Game 7), and they did it with George, who’s been among the NBA’s top performers in the playoffs.

“This was a long series. We’re happy to get over this hump and and get ready for the next task, which is preparing for the Wizards,” said George, who is averaging 23.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.4 steals in the playoffs. “I just thought we grinded them down so much throughout this series that, when you get in a Game 7, those jump shots weren’t falling.”

Up next is Washington, which has had plenty of rest since ousting Chicago 4-1 in the first round. Indiana beat the Wizards twice during the regular season but lost the third and final meeting, 91-78, on March 28 during its late swoon.

A far more formidable opponent than Atlanta, at least on paper, the Wizards feature one of the league’s best guard combinations in John Wall and Bradley Beal and a strong front line in Marcin Gortat and Nene Hilario.

“They have the best young backcourt in the NBA,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “They have great frontcourt players who protect the rim, and they shoot the three extremely well. It was very, very impressive what they did to Chicago.

“We’re going to have to play a great series to beat them.”

West agrees, and he is confident the Pacers are up to the challenge.

“They’ve got great size. They don’t spread the floor as much as Atlanta does, so our defense won’t be as stretched out,” West said. “They’re a tough team. They’ve got good bigs, they’ve got good speed out front with John (Wall), but they’re young. We’ve got to play our game.

“It’s going to be a great, great battle, but we’ve got to be able to impose our will, play our style of ball, really look to get going in Game 1.”

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