INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana salvaged its season Saturday by reverting to form: its first-half form.
Paul George scored a career playoff-high 30 points, Lance Stephenson added 19 and Roy Hibbert finally came up big against the more nimble Atlanta Hawks as the Pacers survived a first-round scare with a 92-80 victory in the decisive seventh game.
Two days after staving off elimination in Atlanta, the top-seeded Pacers did it again and advanced to a second-round series against Washington that starts Monday in Indiana.
“We know what we want to get to and we know what our journey is,” George said.
Though they have a quick turnaround, at least the Pacers get a brief respite from the problems and distractions that lingered during the series.
Indiana, the NBA’s best home team during the regular season, twice gave away home-court advantage by losing Games 1 and 5. Those losses sparked public debate about what needed to change in the offseason and whether coach Frank Vogel would even return if the Pacers became the sixth No. 1 seed to lose in the first round since the league went to its current 16-team playoff format.
Atlanta’s spread offense and 3-point shooters had Indiana’s normally stout defense scrambling for answers after the Hawks took a 3-2 lead Monday night.
Hibbert, an All-Star center, was a non-factor with just 20 points in the first six games combined.
George spent the week dealing with a burglary at his home and the possibility of a Game 7 suspension.
None of it mattered Saturday.
George sparked the two biggest runs of the game, finished 11 of 23 from the field and grabbed 11 rebounds for a league-leading sixth double-double in the playoffs.
Stephenson added nine rebounds and five assists, and wiggled his hips after a game-clinching dunk with 80 seconds to go. Hibbert awoke from his recent slumber with 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks.
Indiana’s regular starters won back-to-back games for the first time since mid-March, rallying from a 3-2 deficit to win a series for the first time in franchise history.
“We know that when he is locked in offensively, his defense is off the charts. That’s when he becomes special,” George said of Hibbert. “I thought he was very special for us.”
The Pacers got back to using their size advantage, beating Atlanta 55-38 on the glass, yet still found a way to limit the Hawks to 11 of 44 from 3-point range. The 44 attempts broke the NBA’s single-game playoff record (42) set by Dallas in a double-overtime game in May 2003.
George also managed to slow down the shifty Jeff Teague.
Kyle Korver led the Hawks with 19 points and Teague had 16. Paul Millsap added 15 points and 17 rebounds — not enough for Atlanta to become the team with the fewest regular-season wins (38) to reach the second round since Detroit’s 36-win team in 1976.
“We had a good number of very good looks, good opportunities, and that’s a big part of the game,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You have to make some shots, and tonight we weren’t able to do it at the rate that we needed to.”
For the first time in the series, Indiana made it look easy.
The teams traded leads seven times early in the second quarter, and then the Pacers’ defense got stingy. It didn’t allow Atlanta to make a basket over the final 6:12 of the first half, using a 14-2 run to take control with a 47-36 halftime lead that ended with Ian Mahinmi’s clean block as Teague drove in for a dunk at the buzzer.
The Pacers opened the second half on a 10-4 spurt and took a 57-40 lead with 8:10 to go when George Hill completed a three-point play. Atlanta never recovered from the 24-6 run.
“We just couldn’t score for a good, long stretch,” Korver said. “In the second half, we had the mindset that we would go out guns blazing. I think we got a little too 3-happy and shot maybe a few too many. When you don’t make them, it creates long rebounds and they took those and got out and ran.”
The Hawks twice cut the deficit to eight late in the third, but George opened the fourth with six straight points in a 9-1 run. Atlanta never got closer than 10 again.
“We’re happy to get over this hump,” George said, “and get ready for the next task.”