They say defense wins championships. The Wizards and Pacers tested the very extremes of that theory Friday night. But with a pivotal Game 3 on the line, Indiana got baskets in the second half when Washington couldn't and retook home-court advantage.
Paul George scored 23 points, Roy Hibbert had 14 and the Pacers held the Wizards to a season-low scoring output in an 85-63 victory at the Verizon Center on Friday. Indiana has a 2-1 lead in the teams' Eastern Conference semifinals series.
The two teams reconvene in the nation's capital for Game 4 on Sunday. Indiana's win carries over its momentum from Game 2 in Indianapolis, another decidedly ugly affair that saw both teams struggle for offensive cohesion.
“Those are our games, the grind games,” George told reporters prior to Game 3. “That's when we're at our best, when we're grinding them out.”
The Pacers held Washington to 32.9 percent from the field, including 4-of-16 from three-point range. The Wizards have shot 24.3 percent from beyond the arc since Game 1, where Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal's barrage from deep allowed Washington to steal home-court advantage. While Ariza posted a double-double with 12 points and 15 rebounds, Beal, the sophomore guard, went 6-of-19 (16 points) in an all-around miserable evening.
In a move that's altered the trajectory of Beal's series, he spent most of his night being hounded by George. One of the league's best perimeter defenders, George was attached to Beal's hip pocket and contested nearly every one of his field-goal attempts.
George was Indiana's lynchpin on both ends of the floor. The All-Star forward still can't find consistent rhythm with his jumper, but was aggressive off the bounce to draw fouls or get looks near the rim. He was also 9-of-10 from the free-throw line. The Pacers will need him to continue being aggressive going forward, as their offense flounders whenever he's not acting like a top scoring option.
In a struggle-filled first half that hearkened back to the days before the bottom was removed from the peach basket, Indiana entered halftime with a 34-33 lead. The teams' 67 combined points were the lowest of any game—regular season or playoffs—of the 2013-14 campaign.
The Pacers came out of the locker room in a far better rhythm. They shot 48.7 percent in the second half after barely knocking down over a third of their shots in the first 24 minutes.
Hibbert, who scored 28 points and grabbed nine rebounds in a rejuvenating Game 2, was active again on both ends of the floor. He had 14 points, five boards, three blocks and numerous other shot alterations. The 7-footer, derided following his scoreless Game 1, actually has scored in double digits in three of his last four games.
More critically, Hibbert continued brilliant work as a deterrent at the rim.
Marcin Gortat and Nene combined for just 12 points, and the Wizards found themselves settling for bad mid-range shots all night. Hibbert has taken a drove of fair criticism for his disappearance on the offensive end, but Frank Vogel's constant assertions of his defensive prowess are backed up by the numbers. Opponents came into Friday night shooting 32.5 percent against the Pacers big man at the rim, lowest of any player remaining with a significant sample.
While George and Hibbert came through, Indiana's offense is far from clicking. Lance Stephenson scored nine points in his third straight disappointing contest, and David West had 12.
Bench production was almost entirely absent for both teams. Luis Scola's 11 points led all bench scorers. The Wizards reserves were held to eight points total, with Martell Webster and Drew Gooden being total nonentities.
In an effort to boost offensive production, Wizards coach Randy Wittman dusted off veteran forward Al Harrington for a rare appearance in the fourth quarter. Harrington did not play in either of the series' first two games.
That said, desperate offensive times call for such drastic measures. The Wizards got their scoring output of the series from John Wall, who finished with 15 points and six assists. But he also had seven turnovers and was frustrated by the rangy George Hill for most of the night. Wittman needs to devise better ways to get Wall out in transition and semi-transition, where he was able to get Ariza and Beal open looks in Game 1.
It's hard to know where criticism of the Wizards' offensive gameplan and credit to Indiana's defense belongs. For all their well-publicized foibles, the Pacers were still the league's best regular-season defensive team by a significant margin and have the athletes to match up with Washington all over the floor. If NBA playoff history tells us anything, it's that a young, up-and-coming team like the Wizards typically runs into an Indiana-esque buzzsaw on their way to long-term success.
Perhaps that is what's happening here. Wall and Beal, arguably the league's best young backcourt, are learning the hard way what playoff basketball is all about—a lesson the wildly undermanned Chicago Bulls were ill-equipped to teach.
Maybe the Pacers, a world-beating juggernaut for the season's first few months, are finally hitting that positive regression to the mean that was bound to happen. It's an anomaly that a team as statistically good as Indiana—and a center as solid as Hibbert—would go through such a prolonged slump.
Or this could just be a blip and Washington will reignite the series on Sunday. For now, and for one scintillating second half of basketball, all looked right with the Indiana Pacers.
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