It came down to the final day of the regular season, but the Indiana Pacers are headed back to the playoffs.
Paul George recorded his 11th double-double of the season as the Pacers (42-40) put the finishing touches on a five-game winning streak to close the season, picking up a 104-86 victory over the Atlanta Hawks (43-39) on Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to secure the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Indiana will face the second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in a best-of-seven first round series.
“It’s both a relief and excitement to go into a new season,” Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said. “This team was built to get into the playoffs. I think we’re playing good basketball and I think we can play better. I think these guys are having fun the last five games.”
The two Central Division rivals met four times in the regular season, with the defending NBA champion Cavaliers taking three of the four meetings. Their only ever postseason meeting came in the first round in 1998, when the Pacers advanced in four games in a best-of-five series.
“We approach them as any other game or any other team,” George said. “We have to go out and challenge them. We have to play them straight up. It’s going to be tough. They’ve been struggling as of late but they’re still one of the best teams in the game and have one of the best players in the world. It’s going to be a fun matchup.”
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Playing on the second night of a back-to-back and locked into the fifth seed in the East, the Hawks elected to rest their top five scorers on Wednesday. Nonetheless, the visitors jumped out to an early 10-5 lead as the Pacers struggled to find an early rhythm offensively.
The Blue & Gold shot just 38.1 percent from the field in the first quarter, but their stout defense still allowed them to surge ahead. Indiana closed the opening quarter with a 17-5 run, limiting Atlanta to just one field goal over the final 7:31 of the period.
The hosts stretched their lead to as many as 11 points in the opening minutes of the second quarter, but the Hawks rallied, eventually trimming the deficit to 36-34 with 5:03 left in the half. But the Pacers answered by reeling off seven unanswered points and took a 50-43 lead into the break.
The Pacers pulled away shortly after halftime. Jeff Teague got the offense off to a fast start, scoring Indiana’s first seven points in the third quarter to push the lead back to double digits. The Pacers extended the margin to as many as 18 points in the frame and took an 84-68 lead into the fourth quarter.
The Hawks got back within nine with 6:22 left in the fourth quarter after Ryan Kelly knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers. But George took over down the stretch, scoring 10 of Indiana’s next 12 points to help secure the win.
George finished with 32 points and 11 rebounds, going 12-for-21 from the field and 5-for-10 from 3-point range. Teague added 19 points and seven assists, while Myles Turner finished with 18 points and eight rebounds.
Ersan Ilyasova led Atlanta with 15 points in the loss. Jose Calderon added 12 points and five assists.
Game 1 is in Cleveland on Saturday, April 15 at 3:00 PM ET and will air nationally on ABC. The rest of the schedule for the series can be found at Pacers.com/Playoffs.
Inside the Numbers
The Pacers have now made the postseason 22 times since the 1989-90 season, more playoff appearances than any other Eastern Conference team over that time period.
George’s double-double was his third in the last five games.
Turner tied his career high with six blocks in Wednesday’s win.
Teague finished the regular season with 639 assists, a career high and the sixth-most by a Pacers player in a single season in franchise history.
The Pacers finished the season with a 29-12 record at home, the fourth-best home record in the East, and won 19 home games by double digits.
You Can Quote Me On That
“I guess it’s because we’re doing everything right. When our back is against the wall, we figure things out. It just showed the character of this team, that we knew all along that we should have been a playoff team, we just hadn’t figured out how to play the game the right way. I think we did that at the right time.” -George on the Pacers’ five-game winning streak to secure a playoff spot
“I’m excited…I love the playoffs. That little taste that I got of it last year — I want to go even further this year. I want to get back. We’ve got a challenge ahead of us, but I think we’re all up for it.” -Turner
“There’s a lot of guys in the league in his position, having to elevate his game and do things to give his team a chance to win. Paul has done that…whatever you have to do.” -McMillan on George
“Their activity and their energy was pretty high. That’s a sign of how important this is. I thought our guys tried to match it. The effort was great, we just weren’t quite with it tonight.” -Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer
Stat of the Night
George scored 20 or more points in his last 12 regular season contests, the second-longest streak of his career. He accomplished the feat in 13 straight games from Nov. 4 – Dec. 2, 2015.
- The Pacers won two of three games against Atlanta this season. The Hawks are the only Eastern Conference playoff team that the Pacers had a winning record against during the regular season.
- Atlanta leads the all-time series with Indiana 100-83, though the Pacers have a 56-36 edge at home.
- The Hawks rested Kent Bazemore, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap, and Dennis Schröder on Wednesday.
The Pacers and Cavaliers will open their best-of-seven series on Saturday, April 15 at 3:00 PM ET in Cleveland.