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INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Pacers can finally focus on what everybody else has been talking about all season — winning playoff games.
Less than 24 hours after finishing the regular season with a loss to Philadelphia, the Pacers returned to practice to prepare for Sunday's opening game against Atlanta. It's about time.
"You know what we did in the regular season, and we accomplished a lot. We're not happy with how we ended it, but this is great thing for us," All-Star Paul George said, referring to the grinding six-month schedule that has set them up to make a postseason run. "We choose our own fate, it's in our hands now."
The Pacers (49-32) couldn't ask for anything else.
Despite closing the season with five losses in six games and blowing a chance to earn the No. 2 seed behind Miami, Indiana still has home-court advantage in the first round for a second straight season. If the Pacers win the best-of-seven series against the Hawks, they'll face either New York or Boston in the second round and avoid the dreaded conference semifinal rematch with the defending champion Heat.
Should the Pacers get past the second round, they would be playing in the conference finals for the first time since 2003-04 -- and the first time in their NBA history without Reggie Miller.
That's exactly what the Pacers envisioned when they paid top dollar to re-sign restricted free agents Roy Hibbert and George Hill last summer. The two moves allowed them to keep the core group together to make another postseason run.
What they didn't expect was to do that without Danny Granger, a former All-Star who led the Pacers in scoring each of the five previous seasons, but missed all but five games with a left knee injury. Granger's absence led to a slow start and may have contributed to the late-season fatigue of Indiana's starters, but the Pacers refused to let it derail their plans.
And now the Hawks (44-38) will face a playoff-tested foe that has four starters from last season's first-round playoff win — George, Hill, Hibbert and David West.
The lone newcomer in the lineup is guard Lance Stephenson, Granger's replacement. He played a total of 12 minutes in four playoff games last year, and this time, Stephenson knows he'll need to be a key contributor after averaging 8.8 points and 3.9 rebounds, both career highs.
Stephenson said Thursday he and his teammates can't wait to get started.
"It's playoff time," he said. "The season is over and we've just got to stay sharp on offense and defense."
The Pacers will make some adjustments against an opponent that it went 2-2 against this season. For starters, Pacers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged after practice that he has a general idea of what he plans to do with his rotations. He did not divulge specifics.
Vogel knows this much: If the Pacers hope to achieve their postseason goals, his team can't wait to improve.
It's a message that has resonated with players.
"We've lost games because we didn't play the right way," Hibbert said. "We've got to do better. It's the playoffs now."