INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George spent much of Friday worried about whether he’d be suspended for Game 7 against Atlanta.
Not a chance.
Less than an hour after wrapping up practice, an NBA spokesman confirmed in an email to The Associated Press that league officials reviewed the tapes from Thursday night’s altercation and determined none of the players who stepped onto the court would be punished for the decisive game of this first-round series.
It was no surprise to the Pacers.
“We’re planning for him to be here until we’re told he’s not going to be in there,” coach Frank Vogel said shortly before the decision was made public. “I think he stayed in the vicinity of the bench.”
Players who leave the “vicinity” of the bench during a fracas can be suspended under league rules.
Few, including Stu Jackson, the league’s former disciplinarian, expected that to happen with George, who took two slow, short steps onto the court before he was pushed back by assistant coach Popeye Jones. Jackson wrote on Twitter that he didn’t expect the league to suspend George, Indiana’s best player and an All-Star starter.
Losing George would have been a major blow to the Pacers’ comeback hopes.
George has topped 20 points in all six games, has double-doubles in five of them and has been the one Pacers’ defender able to slow down quick, shifty Hawks guard Jeff Teague. And it was George and David West who saved the Pacers season with a late Thursday night in Atlanta, too.
All the league’s best regular season home team must do now to reach the second round and avoid the distinction of becoming the sixth No. 1 seed in league history to be eliminated in the first round is protect its home court. Lately, that’s been a problem.
“My thing is that three of the last four times we’ve played these guys (in Indy), they built 20-point leads and beat us pretty good,” Vogel said. “So I don’t think anyone from this team can think we’re going to be OK just because we’re back home.”
The eighth-seeded Hawks understand.
They had a chance to wrap up the best-of-seven series at home and rallied from a nine-point deficit in the third quarter to take a five-point lead late in the fourth. Yet they still lost.
“We’ve responded well all year when we’ve been in difficult situations,” coach Mike Budenholzer said Friday. “Part of our response is going to have to be better execution. I think we have a lot of positive reference points from all year. Our group has been very good and very resilient. I have a lot of confidence in our group.”
But this is going to be different.
The Pacers, who spent all season chasing the Eastern Conference’s top seed, expect a raucous crowd for the first Game 7 to be played at home in the franchise’s NBA history. Plus, they appeared to find a defensive solution to Atlanta’s spread offense by going small in Game 6.
The Hawks, meanwhile, have only a day to adjust to Vogel’s new rotations and are on their own historic quest.
A win Saturday would give Atlanta the distinction of having the fewest regular-season wins (38) of any second-round team since Detroit’s 36-win team beat Milwaukee in the first round of the 1976 playoffs, according to STATS.
“We’ve won on that floor before, so we know we can do it,” Teague said. “We just have to go out there and do what we do and play our style of basketball, and it will take care of itself.”
George has plenty of motivation after a stressful week that included ceding home-court advantage for the second time in the series, losing his 2014 All-Star ring in a burglary that took place while he was playing Game 5, two elimination games and speculation that his 24th birthday celebration might be marred by the announcement of a one-game suspension.
There’s only one thing that really would help him relax — getting a second straight win and setting up a second-round date with Washington.
“Now It’s about getting it done,” George said. “We should be ready for this moment.”