After it was over, a friend asked if I was surprised by the Pacers’ performance.
Come to think of it, this was the first time I was not, at least in this postseason.
Which was shocking.
The Pacers looked like they have supposed to look all along, tougher, smarter and more experienced. The Wizards looked like a talented team that hasn’t won a second-round home game since 1979. Imposing their rediscovered will in the second half, the Pacers rolled to an 85-63 victory in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead, setting all kinds of defensive records in the process.
>> The fewest points ever allowed by a Pacers defense in the playoffs, surpassing the old mark of 68 (set against New York on May 28, 1994 and exactly 10 years later against Detroit);
>> The fewest points ever scored in a playoff game by the Wizards, although their previous record wasn’t quite as old, seeing as how it was set when they scored 75 in closing out Chicago in Game 5 of their first-round series.
Washington shot .329 overall, was 4-for-16 from the 3-point line, missed 10 free throws and had nearly twice as many turnovers (18) as assists (10).
Their spectacularly talented young guards were once again flummoxed. George Hill continued his containment of John Wall, forcing seven turnovers and thoroughly limiting his ability to push the tempo. Paul George threw a blanket over Bradley Beal, who shot 6-for-19.
The big guys held up their end, too. Roy Hibbert continued his sudden resurgence with 14 points and five blocks, while David West scored 12. The Wizards’ Nene and Marcin Gortat combined for 12 points on 5-for-21 shooting.
It was, in other words, the kind of performance you’ve come to expect – but been waiting for, impatiently – from these Pacers come April and May.
For all of their obvious struggles entering this postseason, what could not be denied the Pacers was their experience. This is the fourth playoff run for the core of this team. This is no longer a wide-eyed young bunch on a voyage of discovery. This is a battle-hardened group of veterans who’ve been there, done that and now appear ready to do it again.
The Wizards had become the darlings of the national media types – Bill Simmons actually said beforehand he expected them to win the next three games, while Charles Barkley guaranteed their presence in the conference finals before Game 2 – but they were in unfamiliar territory relative to the NBA postseason and did they ever look lost.
Their best offensive weapon in the first quarter was the missed shot (eight second-chance points) but once the Pacers cleaned up the defensive board, they choked off Washington’s offensive flow.
Hibbert scored six points in a 13-1 run late in the second quarter that pushed the Pacers into a 34-33 halftime lead. Washington shot .317 in the first half, its worst such mark since 1988.
And it didn’t get much better. A dunk by Beal put the Wizards up 37-36 early in the third quarter. Then the Pacers happened.
Hill and George hit consecutive threes, sparking a 22-4 burst in which all five starters cored, pushing the visitors into a 58-41 lead. In a span of nearly eight minutes, the Wizards managed one bucket and three free throws (in eight attempts).
“I thought that third quarter we came out with the mindset that this game’s got to change,” said George, who scored 23 with eight rebounds, four assists and three steals. “We were getting stops and we were doing what we had to do on the defensive end but offensively we needed to come together start to play well and we did that.
“I thought we played with great physicality, our bigs did a great job of just being big in the paint, rebounding. And our defense held up once again.”
It didn’t just hold up, it beat down.
Since George started defending him in Game 2, Beal has gone 13-for-34 (.382). Wall simply can’t solve Hill, shooting 12-for-30 (.400) in this series and 29-for-80 (.363) including three regular-season matchups.
The Wizards must command the tempo to succeed, but the Pacers have denied them the opportunity to run by taking care of the ball, committing just 18 turnovers in the past two games.
It has been an impressive, comprehensive response by the Pacers since that Game 1 loss.
It appears, finally, they have stopped falling apart and started pulling together.