WASHINGTON -- It's been a very long time since we've seen this Indiana Pacers team. You know, the one that defends the rim with two 7-foot behemoths who lurk like Swiss guards. The one that doesn't allow fast break points. The one that is so aggressive on the ball that even an open shot seems like it's being contested by ghosts.
Few believed we'd see this Indiana Pacers team again. Their mystifying fall since the All-Star Break seemed nearly complete after a difficult 7-game series win against the 38-44 Hawks and a Game 1 loss to the upstart Wizards. Though Indiana won Game 2, it did so by the skin of its teeth despite Roy Hibbert's best game in weeks.
That left Wizards officials optimistic prior to Game 3, and why not? To a man, the Wizards felt they gave away Game 2 with poor late-game execution and defensive breakdowns. Clean those up, and Indiana would perish. They were the better team on the whole in the first two games and had arguably been the better team for several weeks.
Instead, this Indiana Pacers team showed up again. The sleeping giant everyone feared, but few believed would return. The one that leaves opponents and bystanders alike venting like they just left the dentist. They routed the Wizards, 85-63, sending their fans storming to the exits wondering if they were witnessing another overhyped D.C. professional sports team providing them false hope before falling apart.
"This was probably the ugliest game of the postseason thus far," Paul George said.
Ugly is a great thing for the Pacers, especially considering how lovely the Wizards looked in Game 1.
The Wizards, with two young guards that often look overwhelmed, a dangerous transition game and a shaky half-court offense that needs to be hitting mid-range shots to survive, are supposed to be the kind of team Indiana eats for lunch. But that was before Game 1, when John Wall dominated in the open floor and Bradley Beal got space to launch his sweet jumper.
That 102-96 Washington win was enough to convince Indiana that it needed to revert back to its roots or face an early playoff exit. No longer would the half-court offense drift aimlessly. No longer would George Hill be an invisible man on both sides of the ball. No longer would George be allowed to freelance in Indiana's half-court defensive scheme, because he was now needed to put the clamps on Beal.
Most importantly: no longer would wing players go for offensive rebounds or out-of-control drives that lead to live-ball turnovers. Getting back and controlling the pace was all that mattered.
"We think they're one of the best teams in the league at striking early. When you let them get transition points, they're a tough team to beat," Hill said. "Knowing that, we can't take bad shots or turn the ball over and give up transition opportunities. The more we can take care of it and get a shot off on every possession, the better off we'll be."
The Pacers knew they needed to adjust or die, so they adjusted. Whenever Wall looked to push off missed shots, he stared at three Pacers in position to block all his options. Whenever Beal tried to curl off a screen, he saw George refusing to give him an inch. Whenever any Wizards big man caught the ball rolling to the rim, Hibbert or Mahinmi was already there to meet him head on. The Pacers eventually got into the Wizards' heads, causing them to rush makeable shots and pass out of layup opportunities.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel downplayed the significance of the game, as all coaches do. He suggested that Indiana's defense was always great, even as the team struggled. But George was much more outspoken.
"This is our style of basketball," the Pacers star said. "Every now and then, this team is fortunate to get hot offensively, but what we do is play defense. We've struggled along the way, but I honestly feel like we're getting back to just blocking out everything. We've got to this point because of defense, and that's what we did tonight."
For a brief second early in the game, it looked like things would be different. Wall took a defensive rebound up the floor and found a trailing Trevor Ariza for a banked three and a 15-10 lead just after a TV stoppage. At that point, Vogel called an extremely quick timeout straight out of the Lenny Wilkins playbook.
"He just said, 'You can't be disappointed in that shot,'" Hill said. "It was a tough shot. Keep your composure. You know they're going to make runs."
The Pacers responded by slowing the game down, mucking it up in an ugly first half before making their once-customary third-quarter run to put it away. And while the Wizards tried to rally, no counter-run ever developed.
The faces in the Wizards' locker room afterwards said it all. Wall spent several minutes in the trainer's room as they tended to a cut he sustained in the third quarter. When he finally came out to speak to reporters, he was out of answers, repeating the cliché that the Wizards just needed to make shots. Nene flashed a wry smile, using gallows humor to try to take his mind off a dreadful 3-14 performance.
"The best way to push this night aside is by laughing and smiling," he said.
On the other side of the locker room, an edgier Drew Gooden suggested the Wizards became overconfident by all the positive press. Veteran Andre Miller offered a suggestion: try to get the pace up by getting away from high pick and rolls that "played into their defense." Beal seemed bewildered by George's defense, saying "I'll find a way [to score]," but not with much confidence.
As all this was happening, George was finishing up his postgame press conference. His deep voice was firm, his message clear. Yes, Wall would surely play better in Game 4, he said. But more importantly, the Pacers of November, December and January were back, and you may as well start to enjoy them.
"If you're a guy that loves defense," the Pacers star said, "we're your team."
He forgot to add "again," but it wasn't necessary. Everyone knew.