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Victory at Garden impressive, but Indiana can’t let up now

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Sooner or later, the Indiana Pacers were going to have win at Madison Square Garden to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Well, the Pacers did it sooner — demonstrating in Game 1 a clear ability to reach the East championship.

The timing is significant, because the Pacers scarcely resembled East finalists heading into the semis. Though they bounced Atlanta in the first round, they didn’t exactly dominate getting it done.

Atlanta, a pedestrian playoff team at best, humiliated the Pacers twice on its home floor.

Although Indiana closed the series on the road in Game 6, they created an impression that they were ripe for routing in the next round.

So much for first-round impressions.

On Sunday, the third-seeded Pacers opened the series on the star-studded Knicks’ home floor scarcely resembling the team that played so timidly — and inefficiently — during two losses in Atlanta.

The Pacers not only played with passion, they executed with rare precision in a pressure-packed environment. The Garden is a tough enough place to play in the regular season. It’s downright brutal in the playoffs.

Yet the Pacers seemed right at home, taking the crowd out early thanks to Roy Hibbert and David West setting a physical tone that Carmelo Anthony & Co. didn’t — or couldn’t — match.

But best of all for the Pacers, who were the among NBA’s best defensive teams all season, defense alone didn’t carry the day. Six players, including all five starters, scored in double figures.

Lance Stephenson was particularly noteworthy.

A first-year starter who was up-and-down during the Atlanta series, Stephenson was consistently all over the place in the Garden. His team-high 13 rebounds, and accompanying 11 points and three steals, were somewhat overlooked but no less instrumental in stealing the home-court edge from the No. 2 seed Knicks.

Indiana, for a change, also got quality minutes from its bench in a tightened rotation. Point guard D.J. Augustin, a disappointment much of the regular season, had one of his best games in a Pacer uniform with 16 points on 5 of 8 shooting from the field. Power forward Tyler Hansbrough also had a quality performance, especially on the defensive side but also offensively with eight points.

What’s it all mean for the rest of the best-of-7 series? Nothing, if the Pacers don’t play at least three more times just like it, either at the Garden or Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Sunday displayed what the Pacers can do when they play with confidence, play together and play smart. More importantly, it gave them wiggle room when they don’t play at home.

They only have to win three times at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to win the series. Or only twice, if lightning strikes twice in the Garden — like in tonight’s Game 2.

Chances are, it won’t. But what the Pacers did in Game 1 was show that it’s possible. More to the point, it discredited assertions that they are nothing more than second-round fodder for whoever moves on to Miami.

With possibly six more games to go, it could very well be the Knicks who move on.

But with home-court advantage, it might well be the Pacers.

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