Ugly Basketball Is 1st Step Toward Indiana Pacers Rediscovering Identity

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Ugly Basketball Is 1st Step Toward Indiana Pacers Rediscovering Identity
David Dow/Getty Images

Game 3 between the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards is thankfully behind us, an unequivocal reminder that winning basketball games isn't a referendum in aesthetics. It also may have been a reminder of a different sort for the Indiana Pacers, a reminder of who they are and what they do.

This team's months-long bout of amnesia has been characterized by uncharacteristic foibles of many sorts—uninspired defense, lethargic offense, disappearing stars and one increasingly irrelevant big man.

A club that was once perceived as a very real threat to the Miami Heat's supremacy was suddenly a threat only to itself. The Pacers made beating the Atlanta Hawks look twice as difficult as it should have been. They made March a month epitomized by all the wrong kinds of madness.

And now?

A rediscovery of sorts.

Who knows if it will last? But for the moment, with two consecutive victories in their belt and their first series lead of the postseason, the Pacers remember what made them click. And here, "click" is a relative term.

Indiana isn't a machine that hums and purrs. It makes clunking sounds, chugging sounds—ugly sounds. George Hill alluded to that, according to Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix:

I think our success has always been ugly. The last three years I have been here, no one wanted to watch us. We didn't have that glow or that flair where high caliber people tune into watch us. I think that's why we had that chip on our shoulder. No one expected us to be where we're at. It's good that no one wants to watch us.

If the Pacers don't want anyone watching, they're well on their way. From amnesia to anonymity, that's how they'd have it.

As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck put it apropos of Game 2, "There was nothing to like about this game, unless you were a Pacer, or a Pacers fan, or one of those masochistic souls who yearns for the grinding, brutish, soul-sucking, low-scoring NBA of the late ‘90s."

Beck described the Pacers' defense as "nagging, bumping, slapping, clawing."

But for those interested in results, all that matters is that it was effective.

Washington's 63 points were a franchise playoff low, flirting with even more historic awfulness:

The Wizards were held to 32.9 percent shooting. Reserves accounted for just three field goals. A vaunted, young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal cashed in on just 12 of 32 field-goal attempts. The inside game wasn't working any better, with Nene Hilario and Marcin Gortat combining to go 5-of-21 from the field.

It was as if the Wizards had never seen anyone play defense before. They were shocked and in awe, paralyzed by the notion that they'd have to grind out a game in the half court, create and convert some open jumpers. 

The Wizards were so rattled that they weren't even making free throws, going just 11-for-21 from the line on the night.

In today's high-octane NBA, these kinds of nights are a precious rarity. But they're also what defines the Indiana Pacers. Head coach Frank Vogel's team ranked second this season in points allowed, holding the opposition to an average of just 92.3 points per contest. It ranked first in opponents' field-goal percentage, giving up just 42 percent efficiency from the field.

These Pacers have never been ones to win pretty. If they aren't winning ugly, they probably aren't winning at all.

For all their defensive accomplishments, there was little of which to boast on the offensive end. Indiana made just 41.9 percent of its own field-goal attempts. The Pacers scored just 34 points in the first half, leaving open a distinct possibility that the Wizards could somehow prevail in a war of attrition that obviously favored Indiana's brand of ball.

All the same, there were signs of life.

The first was Roy Hibbert (and yes, you read that right). IndyStar.com's Zak Keefer appropriately characterized his resurgence:

Friday's encore from Hibbert was more efficient than electric — he followed up Wednesday's 28-point, nine-rebound performance with a very-solid 14 points and five rebounds on 6-for-9 shooting. He wasn't the story this time. But the fact that his second straight double-digit scoring performance (his first back-to-back of that sort since April) was buried beneath the headlines of a lopsided victory remains precisely the point. 

No headlines are good ones for Hibbert at this point. The Pacers don't need him to be an All-Star every night. They just need him to contribute, to set a tone on the defensive end, to use his 7'2" frame to some advantage.

After the game, Vogel noted that he can be effective even when he's not dropping 28 like he did in Game 2:

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.

The most positive sign for Hibbert is that he also played 30 minutes. He played just 18 in his series debut, a game in which the Wizards scored 102 points. He played just 12 minutes in a Game 5 loss to the Hawks during the first round. Atlanta put up 107 points in that game.

When Hibbert isn't on the floor, Indiana's defense suffers. Its ability to deter penetration is dangerously compromised. Per Keefer, Point guard George Hill noted as much after Game 2, saying, "It changes the whole dimension of the game when you have a 7-2 shot blocker in there clogging the paint. Anytime we get that productivity from our big … we're a tough team."

On the offensive end, Hibbert needn't score on every possession, but the Pacers are at their best playing inside-out, running offense through Hibbert and allowing him to make decisions with the ball in his hands.

That's all the more pressing given that Lance Stephenson has been anything but efficient in this series. In three games against the Wizards, the 23-year-old guard has made just 11 of 38 field-goal attempts. He loves to have the ball in his hands, but at this point, the Pacers could probably stand to have it in someone else's.

Hibbert is one option. Paul George is another.

The biggest difference between George and his offensively challenged Washington counterparts wasn't that his jumper was falling on Friday night. It's that he was getting to the line and making his free throws, nine out of 10 to be exact.

Had he scored in any other fashion, this game would have been at risk of being mildly entertaining. It was only appropriate he had to get his offense from the charity stripe, slowly tallying points in a game that crawled along at a turtle's pace.

Like Hibbert, George is by definition a two-way player. While the big man protects Indiana's basket, George is its first line of defense on the perimeter. And he isn't the only one.

Stephenson and Hill are fine defenders in their own rights. Physical, athletic, energetic. If they're doing their jobs, there's no reason Wall and Beal should do any better than they did Friday night. Indiana has the human resources to make life very difficult for the Wizards, to muck games up enough to always have a chance.

They just have to play like themselves. 

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