When the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards squared off in the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals, it was a matchup of two defense-first teams that played at plodding paces, preferring to their grind their opponents into the dust with interior play from their supersized frontcourts. What a difference two years — and a couple of playoff exits as the hands of teams that ran faster, more free-flowing, 3-point-oriented offenses — can make.
Both the Pacers and Warriors set about overhauling their offenses this summer. Washington doubled-down on splitting up bigs Marcin Gortat and Nene by deploying stretchier power forwards like Kris Humphries and Jared Dudley, aiming to recapture the magic of last season's playoff run, which saw the Wiz incinerate the Toronto Raptors and put a real scare into the Atlanta Hawks by paying Paul Pierce at the four.
Indiana made a major structural shift from the frontcourt to the wing. First, they let David West walk in free agency and traded the lumbering Roy Hibbert. Then, they added another wing scorer/playmaker in Monta Ellis while retaining Rodney Stuckey and trading for Chase Budinger, drafted lithe potential future stretch-five Myles Turner in the first round, and made all sorts of noise about playing Paul George at power forward.
Entering Tuesday's play, it was the Wizards who'd actually made the stylistic adjustment, ranking fourth in the NBA in possessions per game and jacking up seven more 3-pointers a night, while Frank Vogel's club hasn't seen a notable jump in long-range-bombing frequency or pace of play, with George splitting time fairly evenly between the three and four spots, according to Basketball-Reference.com's positional estimates. On Tuesday, though, it was Indy that looked like the model of pace-and-space, spread-it-out-and-bomb-away ball, burying the Wizards from beyond the arc:
Behind scorching shooting from all-the-way-back superstar George (7-for-8 from 3-point range) and veteran swingman C.J Miles (8-for-9 from deep), the Pacers hit a franchise-record 19 triples in 26 tries on Tuesday, walloping Washington by a score of 123-109 to earn their third straight win, their sixth in seven games and their ninth in 11 tries.
The two wings — both playing up a spot in the lineup for a Pacer club short on bigs with rookie Turner sidelined by thumb surgery — absolutely torched the Wizards' defense, both setting season highs in scoring. George dropped 40 points on 14-for-19 shooting — his second career 40-point game — to go with eight rebounds, four assists and two steals in 36 1/2 minutes, while Miles poured in 32 on 10-for-16 shooting along with three rebounds, three assists and a steal in 33 minutes.
The Pacers were downright dominant from deep tonight. pic.twitter.com/ctW2825qGS
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) November 25, 2015
The Wizards actually hung around through two quarters, thanks to their own tremendous shooting. Bradley Beal and Gary Neal combined for 28 first-half points to lead a Wizards attack that shot 56.8 percent from the field and 9-for-17 from deep to head into halftime down just one point. The shots stopped falling in the third quarter, though, as the Pacers cranked up the defense, holding Washington to 7-for-21 shooting in the frame while continuing to rain down jumpers themselves.
A 12-4 run keyed by a small lineup of George, Miles, Ellis and Stuckey around center Jordan Hill put Indy up double-digits late in the third, and the Pacers would pull away in the fourth behind similar groups led by George, Miles, Ellis, George Hill (who finished with 14 points, five assists, four rebounds and a steal in 32 1/2 minutes in his first game back from an upper respiratory infection that cost him three games) and big man Ian Mahinmi (seven points, nine rebounds, two assists, two steals in 22 minutes).
The scintillating evening continued a remarkable run for George, who has now scored 25 or more points in nine of his last 10 games. He's averaging 25.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game, and evidently feeling exceptionally comfortable just about everywhere on the court at the moment:
Paul George’s shot chart on the season now. 45.8 FG%, 45.7 3P% and 59.7 TS% on his 30.7 usage rate. Whew. pic.twitter.com/jL9eLlfj01
— Michael Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) November 25, 2015
George's return to All-NBA-caliber form has even rising stars shaking their heads these days.
"When I'm standing this close to you and you're still making shots, I mean, what else do you want us to do?" asked Beal, who finished with 20 points on 9-for-22 shooting, four rebounds, three assists and two steals in 35 minutes, according to Ian Quillen of The Associated Press.
What's making Indiana — now 9-5, fourth-best in the East — so tough these days is that Miles has been white-hot, too, forcing defenses to pay for devoting too much attention to George. The 28-year-old wing has now scored 20 or more in three straight games, and is averaging 19.5 points on 51.3 percent shooting and 51.2 percent from deep over his last six games. George kind of likes having a running buddy that can fill it up like this:
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) November 25, 2015
“First time really having someone else just as hot,” said George before sharing his favorite compliment. “I didn’t know we both missed one 3 a piece, so it’s special, special night.” [...]
Through all his years around the NBA, Pacers coach Frank Vogel has never experienced something like this.
“No. We might have had some Pierce-Walker moments when both of those guys were going off,” Vogel said, recalling his time with the Boston Celtics with Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker. “But not 8-for-9, 7-for-8. I don’t think that’s ever happened.” [...]
“I just felt good. I was getting good looks,” explained Miles, who hit all four of his 3s in the [first] quarter. “It’s a confidence booster coming in games when you know you’ve got a four man (defending you).”
That, of course, was the general idea of moving from smashmouth two-big ball to more consistent four-out configurations: unleash George's combination of long-range marksmanship and off-the-bounce electricity while simultaneously creating more opportunities for Indiana's complementary pieces, like Miles, to walk into easier, more open shots created in the flow of the offense. The transition hasn't been seamless — Indiana entered Tuesday ranked 18th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession — but it's getting there, and it looked as smooth, natural and potent as it has yet on Tuesday night.
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"We've been talking about making people try and pick their poison," Miles said after the game, according to the AP. "There's a lot of space out there when he does what he does. I just try and move in the gaps and find spaces and be aggressive when I get my chances."
If they keep this up, the Pacers could be getting those chances deep into the spring and summer.
Asked if IND’s “overlooked” in East, Paul George said: “Ahh, we’ve always been overlooked. We’ve been gave up energy to fight that one…"
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) November 25, 2015
More Paul George: “...It comes down to in April when they start putting us on ESPN.
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) November 25, 2015
If they get there and wind up meeting the Wizards again, at least we know we can look forward to a hell of a lot more running, gunning and chucking than we saw in their last postseason encounter. John Wall and company will hope that's not the only thing that's different ... and that George and Miles have finally cooled down by then.
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