By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
WASHINGTON – John Wall was awfully grudging in the credit he gave the Indiana Pacers’ defense after a game in which Wall and the Washington Wizards scored 63 points, made fewer than a third of their shots and turned over the ball 18 times.
It sure seemed like an if-not-now-when kind of night to ladle some praise at the Pacers after they won big in Game 3 to go up 2-1 in the teams’ best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series. But Wall stubbornly kept the focus on what he and his teammates didn’t do well, rather than how Indiana pushed and goaded them into a truly miserable performance, before a Verizon Center crowd that barely got to clear its throat.
“We had the shots that we wanted,” the Washington point guard said, nearly 90 minutes after the final horn. Wall gets treatment after games, see, and often takes a while. And then there was the ego to soothe this time.
“I thought we had a lot of pace to start the game, we just didn’t make shots,” he said.
And: “They just sit in the paint, I mean, so you’ve got to be able to knock down a couple of shots to get those guys to come out.”
The free throws he missed (three of six)? He suffered a cut over one eye and “could barely see,” which didn’t explain his pals’ 8-for-15. Those seven turnovers of Wall’s? “They did a great job of knocking the ball from behind. Sometimes you get that call, sometimes you don’t,” Wall said.
Wall and the Wizards can refuse to fawn over their opponents and it might even be the smart move strategically. There is no better position to be in these days against Indiana than to have the Pacers satisfied, relaxing and lacking urgency, because whenever the East’s No. 1 seed has taken the court over the past two months without beads of desperation on its guys’ brows, it generally has botched the job.
And yes, it was kind of weenie for some Pacers – Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Rasual Butler – to be celebrating early Friday with a few minutes left on the game clock. They didn’t crack 80 points themselves until the bitter end and shot just 41.9 percent, with George, David West and Lance Stephenson combining to go 16-for-42. And when Bradley Beal started the fourth quarter with a quick pair of jumpers, you could sense more than the score tightening.
But what made this “Hey! Maybe they are back” outing a little different was that Indiana did so well – won the game, essentially – with a defensive lockdown reminiscent of their finest efforts of the season (i.e., pre-February).
“I thought our focus and our intent were in the right place,” said West, who jump shots on consecutive possessions midway through the fourth countered Wizards’ scores and served as daggers (even though they only got the Pacers to 72). “Everybody was locked into their schemes, sort of where they want to go with the ball, and that fueled our defense.”
Indiana controlled the pace like a team of sluggers watering down the basepaths against a bunch of base stealers. They did a better job on the boards as the night went on – Washington missed 16 shots in the first quarter and claimed seven as offensive boards. In the second half, it missed 21 shots and only grabbed back two.
The Pacers were handsier in this one, too, most often when Hibbert was back in the paint to clean up any gambles. The big guy – Indiana’s barometer lately – landed smack in the middle of his Game 1 (scoreless) and Game 2 (28 points) performances with 14 points, five boards and three blocks. But there were at least three plays in the second half when Beal veered inside only to remember No. 55 dwells there. Each time, the Wizards’ shooting guard moved the ball to a teammate, his guys got less-than-ideal shots and Indiana won all three battles.
“I’m 6-3, 6-4. He’s 7-2. So you do the math,” Beal said. “I mean, that dude is definitely a problem down there.”
If the Pacers like the way their found identity fits over the 48 hours between games, their stalwart defense could turn into momentum and pose an even bigger problem for Wall, Beal and the rest. This was one in which Washington’s limited playoff experience showed, the worst of their eight games this spring and something to avoid for however long their postseason lasts.
For Indiana, it was like bumping into an old friend.
“It felt like how we were playing at the beginning of the year,” guard George Hill said. “Really dictatating things on the defensive end. All guys locked in together, letting our defense dictate our offense. Any time we’re playing like that with all five guys on the same page, trying to help each other in the gaps, offense’ll come easy.”
Uh, let’s not go crazy. Paul George, who scored a game-high 23, called it “probably the ugliest game of the postseason.” He added: “But this is our style of basketball. Every now and then this team is fortunate enough 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 it.”
Ugly victories, after all, still are …
“I think our success has always been ugly,” Hill said. “For the last three years I’ve been here, no one wants to watch us. We didn’t have that glow or that flair or them high-caliber people who [viewers] tune in to watch us.
“That gave us 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.”
Seriously, the Pacers have been unwatchable for weeks entirely on merit. But Hill’s point was a worthy one, almost as meaningful as that 64th one Washington never did score.