WASHINGTON (AP) — Through all of it — the late-season swoon, the questions about team unity, the deficits in the first two playoff rounds — this is what Paul George and the Indiana Pacers wanted.
All along, this is where they were sure they could be. And now Indiana gets its rematch against LeBron James and the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. "We know what's up ahead, what's next," George said. "It wasn't pretty, but we got it done."
The Pacers pushed the Heat to seven games a year ago, and they'll resume the rivalry Sunday in Game 1 at Indianapolis. The teams split their four regular-season meetings. Indiana, the East's No. 1 seed, eliminated the Washington Wizards from the East semifinals in six games with a 93-80 victory Thursday night. No. 2 Miami advanced a night earlier by finishing off the Brooklyn Nets in five games. The West finals also pit the top two seeds, with No. 1 San Antonio against No. 2 Oklahoma City.
"We'll enjoy the plane ride home, and we'll start preparing tomorrow," said Pacers forward David West, who scored 29 points Thursday. "Obviously, (the Heat are) a different animal. We're going to have to change some things, change our scheme defensively. Offensively, we've got to be able to deal with their pressure. So we'll start on all that tomorrow."
In many ways, the series-ending win at Washington was a microcosm of Indiana's season: terrific start; a bobble; finding a way to get by. "It's a roller coaster ride with them," Wizards forward Drew Gooden said. "They're playing elite basketball in spurts, and then they're playing average basketball in spurts."
By Jan. 20, the Pacers had won 33 of their first 40 games. By March 3, they were 46-13. Then they started slipping, going 10-13 the rest of the regular season, amid speculation about internal rifts and All-Star center Roy Hibbert's public complaint about "selfish dudes."
Still, West insisted: "We've never lost confidence in our ability to win tough games against tough, tough basketball teams. The stretch we had, probably the last two weeks of the season ... we were trying to regain our footing."
Once the playoffs began, Hibbert got off to a terrible start — three zero-point outings in a four-game span — and Indiana fell behind 3-2 in their opening series against Atlanta, then lost Game 1 at home against Washington.
After getting outscored by 23 and outrebounded by 39 in a Game 5 home loss to Washington, the Pacers came out strong in Game 6, building a 16-point lead shortly after halftime. And yet Indiana started to struggle again, eventually trailing 74-73 with 8½ minutes left when Bradley Beal ripped a rebound out of Hibbert's hands and hit a 3-pointer at the other end.
From there, though, Indiana ramped up its defense — what it really leans on when times are tough — and allowed only two field goals the rest of the way. "We've had our back against the wall in multiple series and multiple games. We had a tough finish to the regular season, which I think is going to prepare us for a tough, tough series against Miami," West said. "In terms of Xs and Os, we know who they are, they know who we are. It's going to come down to the details, and who's going to be able to impose their will, particularly on the defensive end."
Pacers coach Frank Vogel was asked what he told his players in the locker room after getting past the Wizards. "I kept it short," Vogel said. "Basically what I said was, 'Everything's behind us.' Like I said when we started the playoffs: '33-7 is behind us, means nothing. How we struggled down the stretch, took a lot of criticism, means nothing.' That's behind us. This is where we wanted to be — the Eastern Conference finals and having a chance to move on."
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