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May 15, 2013

LOPRESTI: Pacers prove ready for prime time

Indiana takes 3-1 series lead over Knicks with 93-82 win

INDIANAPOLIS — See the Indiana Pacers grow, one win at a time. This is what coming of age looks like in the NBA playoffs. Brighter lights, louder noise, grander possibilities — and always something new to prove.

Tuesday night’s question: With the New York Knicks in growing desperation, might the Pacers blink, let down at home, allow their visitors the whiff of a comeback? Something a team might do, if not quite ready for prime time.

No. Not even close.  It ended a 93-82 Indiana victory, which meant a 3-1 lead in the series and big New York trouble. Given the chance, the Pacers pushed the Knicks even deeper into the corner, which is what teams do when they are the genuine playoff article.

This will not play well back in New York, which is quick to turn on local flops. Having dusted off the old reliable postseason cliché of crisis and called Game 4 a must-win, the Knicks never had the lead. Not one tick.

On this crucial night, they shot barely 35 percent, including 8-for-28 from the 3-point line. Carmelo Anthony scored 24 points, and they were irrelevant.

If the Pacers’ 23-16 lead at the end of the first quarter was not ominous enough for the New Yorkers, how about the roar when broadcaster — and former pain-in-the-Knick — Reggie Miller was introduced between periods? There he was, an entire encyclopedia of New York playoff nightmares, in one natty suit.

It was that kind of Indiana night, all smiles and cheers, and done with only modest offensive contributions from Roy Hibbert, who scored six points after wrecking the Knicks in Game 3. Instead, there was Paul George’s near-triple double — 18 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists — and George Hill’s 26 points.

 Another sign of a maturing contender: Different heroes for different nights.

“That’s how we play. We play for each other,” George said. “There’s not a selfish guy on the team. When we play for each other and our defense is on the same page, we’ve got a real shot at doing something special.”

The situation could not be clearer. One more Indiana win means a spot in the conference finals. That hasn’t been since the spring of 2004, in the final days of the Miller era and just before the post-Malice at the Palace dark ages.

 But it would mean a lot more than that. It would mean further validation. Further proof that this franchise’s renaissance is at a full gallop.

It seems that way in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, anyway. Where the seats were strangely empty during the season, the house is now nearly full. Where there was once lethargy, now passion and belief. It is getting to be mid-May, and the Pacers are still playing, looking unbeatable at home. They are now 5-0 here in the playoffs, with all five victories by double digits.

 Before the game, Indiana coach Frank Vogel had warned about the peril for a team with the series lead.

“A couple of things are going to happen,” he said. “The opponent’s going to change their desperation and they’re probably going to change their game plan.  You expect the unexpected and understand that whatever fire you ought to your previous victory, you’ve got to bring a greater fire the next game.”

So now we’re measuring the heat of the Pacers’ flame. High in games 1 and 3, higher still Tuesday night. But there is more work to do. They can finish the job in Madison Square Garden Thursday night, but that will be no walk in Central Park. Teams have come back from 3-1 deficits.

“They’re going to be really playing with their backs against the wall,” George said. “That’s how we’ve got to feel as well.”

No sign of any New York rally Tuesday night, however. Only the handiwork of an Indiana team on a mission, now one win away from having Miami on its mind.

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