David West and the Indiana Pacers had gone through too much this postseason to go to yet another deciding game.
Down and counted out against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the NBA playoffs, embarrassed on their home floor in Game 5, the Pacers rallied and survived. After losing to the Wizards in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series, the doubt crept back in. This was not a team to be trusted even if it was the conference's top seed.
Even after winning the next three games against Washington, Indiana didn't help its damaged reputation by getting demolished at home again in Game 5 this week. West, 33, had no intention of seeing his team return to Indiana for a decisive Game 7. No, the Pacers would close out the Wizards at Verizon Center on Thursday night with a 93-80 win.
"We couldn't lose this game," West said. "I was just trying to keep guys confident and encouraged. And ultimately wanted it to be on my shoulders. If we lost this game, I wanted it to be on me and we were able to pull on through and beat a tough team in a tough, good environment to play basketball in."
Indiana, which led for most of the game and was still up by 14 points late in the third quarter, suddenly found itself down 74-73 after a 19-4 Wizards run punctuated by a Bradley Beal 3-pointer. The arena was roaring, Washington's players were jumping and Indiana was in trouble. Until, that is, West drilled an 18-foot step back jumper, two of his game-high 29 points, to quiet everybody in the building save his own teammates. The Pacers never trailed again.
"We're very aware of who has the hot hand so everybody was really looking to draw David's man and get him easy baskets, easy looks," Indiana forward Paul George said. "You leave him open, even the slightest window, he's gonna knock that shot down. David was just special for us. He got us through tonight."
West, who took a season high 26 shots, scored 18 points in the second half alone. He followed that go-ahead jumper with another from 19 feet to put the Pacers up 77-74. By the time he nailed another from 21 feet the Wizards were lost, down 83-76 with 4:07 to play.
"I just wasn't going to leave anything in the clip," West said.
He didn't. West turned in his big performance of the series after similar efforts from George in Games 3 and 4 and center Roy Hibbert in Game 2 – all Indiana victories. West shot 13-of-26 from the floor, played 38 minutes and had six rebounds and four assists, too.
And so a team that has looked lost for much of the playoffs - and most of the second half of the season - finds itself exactly where it wanted to be: In the conference finals with home-court advantage against the No. 2 seed and two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat, who have eliminated the Pacers the past two seasons.
They might not have made it back without their veteran forward taking control in a game that was slipping away from them. No one from Indiana wanted to go home for a winner-take-all contest.
"It's all David West. He settled us down at that point and he made a couple buckets," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "David just has a way of settling our young guys down and riding the waves that are created throughout a game like this with the emotions so high and the runs so dramatic. We're lucky to have him."
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