If you looked carefully, you could see the Indiana Pacers of old peeking through the curtains during the early portion of this second-round series with the Washington Wizards, Game 5 beatdown notwithstanding.
But during a 93-80 victory to clinch the series, the Pacers threw open that curtain, finally showing off more than a few glimmers of their old selves. We're talking about the version that looked like a title favorite before the All-Star break, boasting endless reserves of cockiness, chemistry and defensive excellence.
Even on a night in which Paul George was MIA to the point that you might have thought he was prematurely preparing for the team the Pacers will face in the Eastern Conference Finals, Indiana regained some of that blue-and-gold swagger.
And it gives them a bit of hope against the Miami Heat.
Not a lot, but at least a bit. Based on how Indiana looked during a seven-game first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks, that's still a massive step in the right direction.
"For the Indiana Pacers, it was more ugly than pretty, more difficult than easy," wrote Jeff Zillgitt for USA Today after the final buzzer.
Isn't that vintage Indiana basketball in a nutshell?
This was the Pacers' identity throughout the season, and it's ultimately what allowed them to survive the first two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
During Game 6, the Wizards never topped 23 points in a single quarter. They scored exactly that in the odd-numbered periods, but the even-numbered ones saw them put up 17 apiece. Even when they were desperately trying to come back, Indiana just locked them down.
The closing stretch was the most impressive, which is a great sign heading into a clash with the league's most unstoppable offense. Yes, that's an accurate descriptor, even if Miami didn't finish atop the regular-season leaderboard in many categories.
When Bradley Beal knocked down a three-pointer with 8:30 remaining in the must-win game (more on this later), the Wizards had put up a total of 74 points.
And that's when the Pacers amped up the intensity.
Throughout the rest of the game, Indiana held its opponent to a measly six points. If you prorate that to a full 48 minutes—obviously impossible, seeing as that type of intensity isn't easy to maintain for even a full quarter, much less a full game—the Wizards would've scored only 34 points.
Seriously. That's it.
Every shot was contested. Every pass was made more difficult. Every possession embodied the true mentality of the playoffs, one in which each and every point allowed is considered a travesty for a prideful defense like the one owned by Indiana.
At one point, the Wizards were held slightly over five minutes without a single made shot from the field.
This lockdown mentality should've reminded you of the first-half Pacers, the same ones that were so defensively excellent that I compared them to the greatest units of all time. Actually, I didn't just compare them, instead saying that at that point in the season (early January), they were on pace to go down as the best.
Of course, they quickly veered off that course down the stretch. But that was then, and this is now.
Just look at what they did against Washington:
|Using Expelliarmus on the Wizards|
|WAS Points||WAS FG%||WAS 3P%|
Nonetheless, holding opponents to 82 points or fewer three times in six games is undeniably impressive. It's a sign this defense is back on track.
And right on time.
Defense wasn't the only calling card when Indiana still looked like a dominant force in the Association. Buoyed by immense amounts of chemistry, the Pacers were always a confident bunch.
They played as though they believed, both in themselves and the other players wearing the same uniform. But that confidence has been shaken down the stretch of the regular season and throughout a postseason that seemed to thrust forth the Pacers as the NBA's premier punching bag.
Roy Hibbert served as a microcosm for the entire team, completely losing faith in his play on both ends of the court. Hell, he even told the world that he wasn't good enough after a Game 1 loss to these very Wizards.
"I got to come out and be aggressive," Hibbert said, via ESPN.com news services. "I got to be a different Roy Hibbert than I have been."
He could've said his team needed to be different Indiana Pacers than they'd been, and no one would've argued.
But here's the thing. Since then, with the exception of Game 5, they have been different. Hibbert too, especially with his 28-point outburst in Game 2 that came right after the aforementioned quote. That all came to a head during the series-clinching quarter, when Beal knocked down the aforementioned three-pointer that triggered more defensive effort.
That could have been a back-breaking shot. As soon as the young 2-guard drilled his look from the top of the key, I asked a group of colleagues if it was possible to have a knockout blow with over eight minutes remaining.
Turns out, it wasn't.
The Pacers of Round 1 and the early portion of this series with Washington would've collapsed. After all, they'd just blown a lead that swelled as large as 14 points during the third quarter, and the scoreboard showed the Wizards had finally taken the scoring advantage. Against all odds. At home. In what they had to consider a must-win game.
There's quite a bit of demoralizing energy swirling around whenever those circumstances occur.
But for the first time in a while, the Pacers showed resiliency. That's when they locked down and played in a manner that would lend credence to David West's bold proclamation:
He lived up to his words, scoring six points down the stretch to help clinch the series.
Hell, looking at things on a more macro scale, wasn't this whole game a show of resiliency? The Pacers could've relied on the fact that a potential Game 7 was at home, coming out flat at the Verizon Center after getting flat-out embarrassed two nights earlier.
But that's not what happened, as they instead finished off their fourth win in five games. They were too prideful for a collapse, and I mean that as a compliment.
Where was this confidence in the past? Where was it when the sub-.500 Hawks were torturing Indiana with three-point attempt after three-point attempt? Where was it when the mental makeup was being questioned by virtually everyone with a pulse?
All of those are important questions, but there's one that takes even more of a priority.
Does it matter?
After Game 6, it might not. The past is the past.
Perhaps the Pacers haven't done enough to have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Heat quaking in their boots, but they've at least achieved enough to remind us of the dominant squad that earned—and still maintains—the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.