Life's never more beautiful for the Indiana Pacers than when it's ugly, and things got ugly as sin at Verizon Center on Friday night.
Frank Vogel's team, which rode the league's best regular-season defense to the No. 1 seed in the East, set a new franchise mark for single-game postseason stinginess, earning an 85-63 win in the nation's capital that gave them a 2-1 lead — and gave them back home-court advantage — in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals series. The 63 points were the fewest ever allowed in the postseason by the Pacers, besting the 68 given up in a conference finals win over the New York Knicks back in 1994. This also sets a new franchise nadir for the Wiz, falling far short of the previous postseason low of 75 (set during their opening-round-clinching Game 5 victory over the Chicago Bulls) and coming up one point shy of the franchise's regular-season low of 64, set in a January 2012 loss to those Bulls. (Maybe the Wizards and Bulls just shouldn't be allowed to play one another.)
“Defense is what we hang our hats on, so if you’re a guy that loves defense, we’re your team," said Pacers All-Star forward Paul George, who scored a game-high 23 points on 6-for-15 shooting to go with eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block, and used his long arms and sure footwork to play skin-tight defense all night on Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal, who made just six of his 19 shots, and only one of his five 3-point tries, en route to a Wizards-leading 16 points.
George led four Pacers in double-figures, including 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert, who followed up his strong Game 2 with 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting, five rebounds and three blocks in 29 1/2 minutes. The much-maligned All-Star big man even cracked a few smiles during his return trip to the city where he played his college ball at Georgetown.
There wasn't much cause to smile for the Wizards, who shot just 32.9 percent from the floor, failed to top 18 points in any of Game 3's four quarters, and saw the Indiana defense suffocate the offensive rhythm they were able to muster in their first-round upset of the Bulls, forcing them into 18 turnovers that led to 21 Pacer points.
"This is a clunker for us, no doubt about it," Wizards head coach Randy Wittman said after the loss, which marked just the third time since 1954 that a playoff team has been held to 63 or fewer points, according to Truth About It's Kyle Weidie. "We gotta let it go."
From the very start of the game, the Pacers worked diligently to rediscover the stultifying defensive form that has been their calling card throughout Vogel's tenure at the helm. They hustled back on defense to prevent electric Wizards point guard John Wall from getting easy buckets in transition. They stuck close to Washington's shooters on the perimeter, allowing 16 3-point attempts to a Wizards team that averaged nearly 21 per game during the regular season; the Wiz made just four deep tries. They made multiple efforts on each possession, with point guard George Hill in particular doing a wonderful job in staying attached to Wall, who scored 15 points on 6 for 13 shooting but committed seven turnovers to mitigate his six assists.
While shot-making rhythm eluded the Wizards from the opening tip, Washington was at least able to make hay in the early going on the offensive boards. The Wiz grabbed seven offensive rebounds and scored eight second-chance points in the first quarter alone, with small forward Trevor Ariza taking advantage of the Pacers' wings crashing down on big men Nene and Marcin Gortat by sneaking into the paint to snag five offensive rebounds and score nine points in an opening frame that ended tied at 17. The Pacers made a more concerted effort to clean the glass thereafter, holding Washington to just three offensive rebounds and two second-chance points over the final 36 minutes, and took a slim 34-33 lead into halftime thanks to some interior attacking by George and Hibbert (5 for 8 from the foul line in the second quarter).
As they did so many times during the regular season, though, the Pacers lowered the boom after intermission, tightening the vise grip on the Wizards with strong on-ball defense and sharp help rotations that helped influence the Wiz into tough shots. Indy was also willing to wallop the Wiz when they got in positions of advantage, committing seven fouls in the third quarter in a sign they'd rather see Washington try to do its damage from the line than on an uncontested opportunity. The Wizards couldn't, with Wall and power forward Nene missing six of their eight freebies in the third — the Wiz went just 11 for 21 from the stripe on Friday — as the Pacers took control with a 22-4 run spanning more than eight minutes of game time and entered the fourth with a commanding 15-point lead that, in a game played at this pace and with this level of shooting, felt like it might as well have been 45.
A pair of jumpers from Beal knocked the Pacers' lead down to 11 just a minute into the final quarter, but the combination of missed midrange jumpers — Washington shot just 5 for 25 between the paint and the 3-point arc on Friday — and a handful of good pick-and-pop looks for big men David West (four of his 12 in the fourth) and Luis Scola (all of his 11 late) helped keep the Pacers comfortably ahead and send the Wizards home with a dispiriting defeat at a pivotal point of the season.
"The best way to finish this night is to just laugh and to smile and to pray," said Nene after scoring eight points on 3-for-14 shooting with three rebounds, two blocks and three turnovers in 34 minutes. "And to come back strong again."
The Wizards will need to do just that, because they've put themselves behind the 8-ball here. In postseason matchups tied 1-1, the winner of Game 3 has gone on to take the series 75.9 percent of the time. If the Wizards can't muster a better offensive showing in Sunday's Game 4 against an Indiana team that for perhaps the first time all postseason is looking like it remembers who it is and what it needs to do, they could find themselves staring down a 3-1 deficit with their season on life support headed back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
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