Pacers finish off Magic, win first playoff series in seven years
The Pacers beat the Magic 105-87 in Game 5 to advance to the conference semis
Indiana won its first playoff series since 2005, the season of Malice at the Palace
Speculation of Stan Van Gundy's, Dwight Howard's future will only intensify now
The Indiana Pacers finally finished one of their first-round playoff games against Orlando with a strong fourth quarter, and put behind them a long process of rebuilding from an ugly era. Tuesday's 105-87 win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse gave Indiana its first playoff series victory since 2005 -- the season of the infamous brawl in Detroit.
Since '05, when it beat Boston in the first round, Indiana endured five consecutive losing seasons while rebuilding around a young cast of team-oriented grinders who showed this year that they were ready to challenge the East's elite. Tuesday's win, which closed out the series with Orlando, 4-1, officially put that long rebuilding process behind them and sent the Pacers on to the next stage of their development with what could be a stiff second-round test against the winner of the Heat-Knicks series.
The Pacers sealed their fourth straight win in the series by finally closing out a game with a dominant fourth-quarter performance. That had been the Pacers' weakest point in the series: They outscored Orlando in the fourth quarter only once in the first four games while shooting 32 percent, giving up leads in the process after they had games under control. This time, after trailing by two points entering the quarter, Indiana closed out the Magic in impressive style. Danny Granger (12 points) and Darren Collison (15 points) hit 11-of-15 shots in the period to power an offense that hit 75 percent of its shots (15-of-20) in the final quarter. And Indiana's defense had one of its best periods of the series, pushing Orlando out of the paint and forcing the Magic to take jump shots, which they struggled to hit.
Orlando made just 5-of-16 shots in the quarter, four of which were either hit by its guards or on the perimeter. Indiana's poor finishes justified questions about how well the Pacers could compete against more complete teams like the Heat. So they'll want to revisit Tuesday's fourth-quarter performance and find any way they can to bottle that effort.
One of the most impressive signs of the Pacers' maturation in this series has been their fast starts. Indiana held double-digit leads in the first quarter of every game against the Magic, including a 26-11 lead midway through the opening period on Tuesday after going on a 19-4 run midway through the quarter. And while Orlando outscored the Pacers in the third quarter for the first time in the series on Tuesday, it was a stark turnaround from the previous four games. Indiana still outscored Orlando by an average of 10.6 points in the third quarter and used those hot starts to build comfortable second-half leads. Indiana shot a combined 53 percent (97-of-182) in the first and third quarters against the Magic, a sign that the young Pacers are starting to learn to hit their opponents hard and seize the momentum early on.
After struggling in the first two games of the series, Collison's play off the bench has become increasingly stronger in the last three games. That will be an important trend for the Pacers to carry over into the second round. Indiana's bench raised concerns throughout the first round: It shot just 38 percent (32-of-85) in the first four games while its most consistent producers, Collison and Leandro Barbosa, battled shooting slumps. The weak bench play allowed the Magic to get back into games after the Pacers jumped out to their early leads, as Orlando did once again on Tuesday.
After the Pacers' starters exited with 2:41 remaining in the first quarter and a 24-11 lead in hand, Orlando outscored them 20-11 before Roy Hibbert and Granger checked back in with 7:23 remaining in the second quarter, their big lead reduced to four points. But Collison took control of the game in the fourth quarter and single-handedly prevented another letdown. He attacked aggressively off screens and was 7-of-7 from the field to close the game. It continued an encouraging trend: After scoring two points in each of the first two games, Collison closed the series averaging 13.3 points and 5.7 assists while shooting 65 percent from the field. That's the type of leader Indiana's bench needs to see in the second round.
One of the Magic's main problems in this series was that they were never able to get Indiana out of its comfortable half-court sets, where the Pacers held a size advantage and could defend Orlando more effectively. Without Dwight Howard, matching Indiana straight up was a daunting challenge. The Magic would've been wise to push the tempo and look to get easy baskets before Hibbert, David West and Paul George could get set and use their size and length to disrupt Orlando's offense. Trouble was the Pacers made it very difficult for Orlando to find those opportunities. They out-rebounded Orlando in every game by an average of 8.4 boards and was strong on the offensive glass, which limited the Magic's fast-break opportunities. As a result, Orlando scored a total of 13 fast-break points in the series and failed to score a single transition point in two of the games, including on Tuesday.
Stan Van Gundy says the speculation about his future as the Magic's coach doesn't bother him. That's a good thing, because four straight losses in their opening-round series against the Pacers should ensure that the speculation only intensifies in the coming days. The Magic's losing streak put a bitter end on a soap opera of a season in which Van Gundy's relationship with Howard -- the focus of widespread trade talk earlier in the year -- was questioned nearly since the season-opening tipoff.
Howard wasn't around for Orlando's disappointing dip to end the season, in which the Magic dropped 14 of their final 20 games while their All-Star center shut down his season early to have back surgery. His absence didn't help the Magic make a convincing argument for Van Gundy to remain in Orlando. The Pacers dominated inside throughout the series, outscoring Orlando by 15.2 points per game in the paint and holding the Magic to 40 percent shooting for the series. The season-long drama and season-ending struggles give Orlando plenty of reasons to consider a change of some form.