After years of losing and players finding trouble, the Indiana Pacers finally gave their fans something to really cheer about. Danny Granger scored 25 points to help the Pacers defeat the Orlando Magic 105-87 on Tuesday night and clinch their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series 4-1.
"I'm just so happy for our fans," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "They've endured a lot those years when we struggled. To finally see us come back and have a winning team again and somebody that has a chance to do something special this year. That's what they deserve. Pacers basketball is back."
The Pacers will play Miami or New York in the second round. Miami leads that series 3-1, and as the final minutes ticked away, fans began chanting, "Beat the Heat."
"It was electric," Granger said. "The crowd was crazy. They had a lot of momentum going. They pushed us in that fourth quarter."
It was a tough series for Orlando, which played all five games without All-Star centre Dwight Howard because of a back injury. They took the opener, then watched Indiana put together its first series win since 2005 and its first clincher on its home court since the first round of the 2000 playoffs. No player on Indiana's roster had won a playoff series while playing for the Pacers.
"It's an unfamiliar situation for a lot of guys, but I just thought we stayed together," Indiana forward David West said. "They made some runs, made some shots. But ultimately, we stayed together as a team and won this game as a unit."
Granger finally got his first series win in year seven. Perhaps fans should take it easy on him — it took Reggie Miller six years.
"Close out game, you obviously want to play your best at these moments," Granger said. "I pride myself on that. I had big night, but I'm just glad we got the win."
Darren Collison scored 15 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter and George Hill added 15 points for the Pacers, who trailed by two at the end of the third quarter but outscored the Magic 36-16 in the final 12 minutes.
Collison's complete dominance of Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson in the fourth quarter turned the game. Indiana had no answers for three quarters before Collison, who had lost his starting job late in the season, entered the game and took over. Collison made all seven of his shots in the fourth quarter and had four assists. Nelson made 1 of 5 shots in the period and missed both of his 3-point tries.
"That's a testament to the type of team we have," West said. "We're deep, man. We've got guys, that when their number's called, they're prepared. DC just had another gear that I don't think anybody else on the floor had."
In Game 4, Indiana blew a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter before pulling out a win in overtime. This time, the Pacers shot 75 per cent in the final 12 minutes.
Nelson led Orlando with 27 points and made 5 of 8 3-pointers. Glen Davis, a thorn in Indiana's side throughout the series, scored 15 but made just 6 of 17 shots. The Magic, who made just 5 of 16 shots in the fourth quarter, didn't want to use Howard's absence as an excuse.
"We don't think like that," Orlando forward Ryan Anderson said. "We know we can win and play hard. We proved in Game 1 we can come out and play hard and win."
Orlando surprised Indiana in Game 1, forced overtime in Game 4 and led heading into the final quarter of their season.
"We gave a tremendous effort," Anderson said. "We really battled. We played hard. Nobody can say we didn't. It's just tough."
Collison made a layup and hit a 3-pointer to give the Pacers a 78-73 lead with 9:33 to play. After Nelson drained another 3, Collison came back with a layup, then Leandro Barbosa's steal and layup pushed Indiana's lead to 87-80 with 6:49 to play and forced an Orlando timeout. A few minutes later, Paul George stole an inbounds pass and found Granger under the hoop for a layup and a 91-80 lead. The Pacers dominated from there.
Indiana led by as many as 15 points in the first half, but as was the case throughout the series, it didn't last. Orlando got hot late in the half, and a 3-pointer by Jason Richardson and a bucket by Davis cut Indiana's lead to 48-47. Indiana's Roy Hibbert made a hook shot to push the lead back to three at the break.
Orlando tied the game at 61 on a fadeaway by Davis before a three by Nelson gave Orlando a 66-64 lead. Nelson hit another three in the closing seconds — he had 15 points in the quarter — to give Orlando a 71-69 lead. Hill added nine points in the period to keep the Pacers in the game before Collison and Granger put it away.
Now, Indiana wants more.
"Huge step for our franchise," Vogel said. "We're not happy with just getting that, though. We feel like this is just the beginning of a big run. We're excited about where we're at as a basketball team."
Notes: The teams combined for just five turnovers in the first quarter. ... Indiana shot 50 per cent in the first 12 minutes. ... Orlando made just 1 of 7 3-pointers in the first period. ... Collison's first turnover of the series came in the closing seconds of the third quarter. He finished the series with 23 assists and one turnover in the series. ... Orlando outscored Indiana 24-19 in the third quarter. Indiana had outscored the Magic 108-60 combined in the third quarter of the previous four games.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbruntap