It's hard to say where the strong defense ended and terrible offense began. Some combination thereof translated into an 85-63 Indiana Pacers win in Game 3, giving them their first series lead of the postseason after battling from behind against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.
The Washington Wizards looked lost and stifled on the offensive end. With the pace slowed to the Pacers' liking, the young Wizards were forced to find their way in a half-court offense that just never got going. Washington made just 32.9 percent of its field-goal attempts and set a franchise record for fewest points scored in the postseason.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Washington also turned the ball over 17 times. Indiana gave up just nine turnovers.
The Wizards scored just 12 points in the third quarter, 30 overall in the second half. The Associated Press runs down Washington's offensive struggles (via ESPN.com):
Washington point guard John Wall came in with five turnovers in his previous four games, but he had seven Friday, to go along with 15 points and six assists. Bradley Beal scored 16 points but shot 6 for 19. Trevor Ariza had 12 points, but zero in the second half. Marcin Gortat scored four points one game after having 21. And Nene had eight points on 3-of-14 shooting and only three rebounds.
If you were wondering whether the Indiana Pacers are officially back after taking Game 2, this was their strongest statement yet. It wasn't pretty, but it was awfully effective.
Leading the charge were Paul George and Roy Hibbert, two players who've had more than their fair share of ups and downs over the last couple of months. Hibbert broke out of his slump in Game 2 with 28 points and nine rebounds. On Friday night he had 14 points, five boards and three blocks.
Until Game 3, George was on the verge of a slump of his own.
He made just 9-of-30 field-goal attempts in Games 1 and 2, seemingly having lost his way after a brilliant first round against the Atlanta Hawks. He bounced back nicely in Game 3 with 23 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals. Despite a rough shooting night (6-for-15 from the field), George got to the line consistently and cashed in when there.
You'd like to see Hibbert getting a few more rebounds, and you'd like to see George shooting a bit better from the field.
But Indiana's two All-Stars are at least starting to look a little bit like All-Stars in this series. Head coach Frank Vogel's team has a ways to go, but it also has something to hang its hat on. The leaders are leading.
Perhaps most importantly, they're setting a tone on the defensive end. The fact that Hibbert is finally scoring again might obscure that he also had three blocks on Friday night. George and Hibbert have to be more than just scorers to win this series.
After the game, that's precisely how Vogel characterized Hibbert (per NBA.com): "His contributions during that [second quarter] run and really the whole night maybe as important as anybody’s on our team. And Roy’s a terrific two-way player, that’s what he is. Not a 30-point a game guy, but he’s a dominant defender, a dominant rim protector, and he’s a threat on the offensive end."
George is the perimeter's first line of defense. Hibbert is that defense's anchor. Along with George Hill—who was feisty all night long—they deserve the lion's share of the credit for disrupting Washington's offense and turning this game into the ugly mess that it was.
When you're the Pacers, that's a good thing.
This is a team that thrives in slower, grind-it-out contests. While it has the athleticism to run the floor, it just doesn't have the scoring capacity to keep pace in uptempo games. It's imperative for the Pacers to keep the Wizards standing around in the half court.
Doing so forces them to win with execution rather than speed and explosiveness. That's disadvantageous given Washington's dependence on two young guards in the backcourt, John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Wizards tried to compensate in Game 3 by going inside, something that worked pretty well throughout their first round against the Chicago Bulls.
It didn't work nearly as well against Hibbert and Co. in Game 3.
Nene Hilario and Marcin Gortat combined to make just 5-of-21 field-goal attempts. They scored 12 points.
It's harder to measure Hibbert's defensive impact, but it's probably the most important kind he can have on this series (or any other). At 7'2" he's a born rim protector, at least when the motor is there. Indiana desperately needs him to body up against Washington's bigs and keep a hand in their faces.
Though this was clearly a defensive victory, the Pacers still had to score more than 63 points to win. To that end, George and Hibbert's more visible contributions were every bit as valuable as their defensive ones.
George had just 11 points in the Pacers' narrow Game 2 victory. The team proved it could win without him playing dominantly, but it's no secret that it'd really rather not have to. George is the team's most dynamic scorer, its closest thing to a superstar. When his shot isn't falling, he has to find ways to make a difference.
That's exactly what he did Friday night, working his way to the basket and drawing fouls.
Hibbert, on the other hand, actually scored pretty efficiently from the field. He made six of his nine field-goal attempts. The most encouraging sign is that he still isn't forcing anything. Much as he did in Game 2, Hibbert waited for the offense come to him rather holding on to the ball and taking bad shots.
He isn't pressing, which is almost surprising given the amount of criticism he's taken.
The big man didn't score in Games 5 or 6 of the first round. After a promising Game 7, he proceeded to post zero points and zero rebounds in Game 1 of the semifinals. It's not at all hard to imagine him trying to do too much, but thus far he's resisted the impulse.
George and Hibbert will remain crucial sources of offense, even in a world in which the Pacers defense remains impenetrable. The Pacers got just 18 points off the bench in Game 3. Lance Stephenson had another rough night from the field, going just 4-for-13.
Indiana's 85 points certainly don't qualify as an offensive explosion, and that highlights just how thin their margin for error is in this series. Without George and Hibbert contributing as two-way players, the Pacers are in danger of letting the Wizards back in this series.
Much as you might want to celebrate this win for Indiana, the optimism has to be cautious. The Pacers only made 41.9 percent of their shots. They still aren't running as smoothly as they did back in November and December.
All is not entirely well for Indiana.
But for the moment, it's good enough. And "good enough" might be all it takes for a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.