It ended pretty much like everyone expected it to end, five games with the Pacers in control at the end.
But at times it didn’t feel like it was supposed to — the Pacers looked like a team still learning how to win in the playoffs. Orlando played hard and gritty ball, they never stopped shooting threes and when they fell they were dangerous.
But like in Game 5, all that could keep Orlando close for only so long. In the end talent won out and with Orlando missing its all-world center Dwight Howard it was only a matter of time. In Game 5 the Pacers were down 2 entering the fourth but outscored the Magic by 20 — led by Danny Granger’s dozen in the final quarter — and pulled away for a 105-87 win and a 4-1 series win.
It is the first time the Indiana Pacers have advanced past the first round since Reggie Miller’s last season and Rick Carlisle was coach (2005).
Their reward? The Miami Heat. (Unless you think the Knicks can pull off the greatest playoff comeback in NBA history. We’ll stick with the Heat for now.)
For Orlando, they head into a summer of uncertainty — what will happen with coach Stan Van Gundy, with attempts to shape the roster to Howard’s liking, or in the end they may just move him. The bottom line is they were 5-12 without Howard to end the season and were not a playoff team.
This game was a battle of the point guards. Orlando stayed close because of Jameer Nelson, who had 27 points. He was fantastic off the pick-and-roll with Glen Davis, stepping back to hit the three (5-of-8 from deep) or driving into the lane. Indiana struggled to defend him in this game and all series.
But the Pacers responded with the duo of Darren Collison and George Hill. This was Collison’s night — 9-of-10 shooting for 19 points off the bench, his speed was just too much for the Magic to slow. Hill finished with 15 points and had a good third quarter that kept Indiana in it.
But the third quarter had belonged to the Magic, who played with the desperation of a team trying not to be eliminated. They outscored the Pacers 24-19 in the quarter, played good defense and made of a game of it.
But Granger came alive, Collison made shots and after a 36-16 fourth quarter the Pacers are moving on.
Indiana has been a team on the rise, a team with good talent and good balance that plays smart at both end. Now we’re about to find out just how good they are.
But first, Indiana should celebrate the win and the step forward. They earned it, even if the path could have been tougher.