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April 19, 2013

Pacers hoping to regain momentum in playoffs

INDIANAPOLIS — Forget about the film, the numbers and the losses.

The Pacers insist everything will be OK now that they’re in the playoffs with their first-round series against sixth-seeded Atlanta opening on Sunday in Indy.

Once one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference, Indiana lost five of its last six games, digging itself deficits of at least 20 points in each of those six games, and blowing a chance to earn the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Conventional wisdom suggests teams heading into the postseason this way don’t hang around long, though the Pacers believe they can turn that premise upside down.

“This is a new season, guys are refocused and re-energized, but again we’ve got to come out and perform,” forward David West said after Friday’s practice. “This is the only chance you have to get it right. In the playoffs, it you don’t get it right, you’ll get bounced and you’ll be going home in 10 days.”

That’s not how the Pacers (49-32) drew it up when the season began.

After winning their first playoff series in seven years last spring and re-signing Hibbert and point guard George Hill to lucrative deals last summer, the Pacers embraced the visions of challenging for a conference title.

After overcoming a season-long injury to Danny Granger by relying on one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses and winning four straight road games to set up their first Central Division title in nine years, things have gone awry.

Paul George, the team’s lone All-Star, has struggled lately in part because he was contending with an abdominal injury and in part because he played only 250 fewer minutes this season (2,972) than he had in his first two NBA seasons combined (3,222). Coach Frank Vogel acknowledged Friday the increased playing time probably has taken a toll on George, the Pacers’ top scorer at 17.4 points. After taking three days off, George said he feels good and that the Pacers aren’t that far away from again changing perceptions.

“To put it in perspective, as much as we’ve been struggling, we’re still playing good basketball,” he said. “We’ve been down 20 in all those games and still have had a chance to win them. That’s hard to do.”

It’s not just George who’s had trouble lately.

Trainers made Hill sit out at the end of Friday’s workout so he could rest his injured left groin. Hill insisted he could have played if it was game day and that he will be ready to go Sunday when he’s likely to be defending another Indy native, Hawks guard Jeff Teague. Vogel also said Hill would play Sunday.

West, a 10-year veteran, missed five straight games in March with a back injury but appears to be back to being himself now. Even Hibbert, who struggled to improve on last season’s scoring numbers early yet played his best basketball over the season’s final month, needed a break.

Vogel held no practice Monday and gave his team an unplanned second straight day off when Tuesday’s game at Boston was canceled following the Boston Marathon bombings. Vogel then kept his starters out of practiced and on the bench for Wednesday’s regular-season finale, a 105-95 loss to Philadelphia at home.

The question is will all that extra rest pay dividends or just make the Pacers rusty?

“The guys are really dialed in,” Vogel said, explaining his observations over the past two days at workouts. “Everything out of your mouth, they’re nodding their heads and they’re coaching themselves.”

As the Pacers stumbled to the finish line, the Hawks (44-38) didn’t fare much better.

Coach Larry Drew held his starters out of the last two games, resulting in back-to-back losses that ended Atlanta’s chance at earning the No. 5 seed. Instead, Atlanta wound up in the No. 6 slot and wound up getting the Pacers.

Following Thursday’s practice, Drew acknowledged he was more concerned about getting players healthy and rested for the playoff grind than he was about which team he faced.

But with both teams trying to regain their mojo, Game 1 could be even more critical than usual — and Vogel believes his team is ready to change course.

“I think our guys are an extremely confident team right now,” he said. “Every game is important so I don’t know if Game 1 is any more important just because our guys have struggled a little bit.”

Pacers players don’t believe the talk, either. In fact, they’re so tired of answering questions about what’s wrong, they’re ready to get back to basketball.

“I feel like I’ve been asked that question a million times,” Hibbert said. “We’ve lost some games because didn’t play the right way. We’ve just got to get it back because it’s the playoffs now.”

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