Posts Tagged ‘2014 playoffs’

Playoff loss now motivation for Blazers

VIDEO: Spurs dismiss Blazers in five games to reach West finals

This was months ago, and yesterday.

The Trail Blazers still feel it from May, still talk about that moment in San Antonio, what it was like to walk off the court the final time and what it will mean when they walk back on the court the next time. New season, same memories.

Portland is forgetting nothing from the playoff exit, and not just because the black-and-blue mark the Spurs left won’t allow it. More like because the Trail Blazers don’t want to. Keeping it close is the whole idea.

That won’t take much doing — it is close. Months later, they’re still talking about how the emotional high from the successful regular season and the rush of a 4-2 win over the Rockets in the first round despite not having home-court advantage gave way to feeling like roadkill after the 4-1 elimination at the hands of the Spurs. Months later, they’re still wanting to feel it for many more months, from training camp and into the new schedule.

“Our entire team enjoyed having a taste of success, not only in the regular season but in the playoffs and winning in the first round,” coach Terry Stotts said. “The fact that San Antonio not only beat us, but how they beat us and how they won the championship I think gave us the motivation to know that there’s a lot for us still to achieve and what we have to do to achieve it.”

How they beat us.

Game 1: Spurs 116, Trail Blazers 92. Twenty-four points.

Game 2: Spurs 114, Trail Blazers 97. Seventeen points.

Game 3: Spurs 118, Trail Blazers 103. Fifteen points.

Game 4: Trail Blazers: 103, Spurs 92. Avoiding the sweep, avoiding being eliminated at home.

Game 5: Spurs 104, Trail Blazers 82. Twenty-two points.

“We took some big losses,” said Meyers Leonard, a reserve center. “I think that we could have been much closer. But it was our first time, so I think we just have to realize we are that good of a team. We can compete with those teams. I think that’s what’s going to stick with us. We know that we’re more than capable. But they came out and came at us right away and we were kind of like, ‘Whoa.’ Now we just have to realize that we are at that level and we have to maintain that level or teams that have been there and done that will put us away.”

That the Spurs proved to be the team of the entire season and not just that series makes the Blazers look better in retrospect … but not feel better. Not when the gulf was that large and the memory that strong.

So 1-4 becomes motivation for the weight-lifting sessions the rest of the summer, the extra time in the film room in training camp, and then for real. Opening night, Oct. 29, is at home against the Thunder, an immediate test. But so is the entire first leg of the schedule, a gauntlet of the Thunder, Kings on the road, Warriors, Cavaliers, Mavericks, and Clippers on the road.

Even if the Trail Blazers have enough to worry about in October and November without reaching back to May, they will probably be keeping the end of 2013-14 close. That’s the plan right now. That’s the feeling right now, and maybe for a while.

Right where the Pacers wanted to be, however it was they got there

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: Pacers oust Wizards to advance to conference finals

WASHINGTON – The who, the what, the where, the when – all of that stuff is set, the boxes checked, the blanks filled in, no different on paper than how the Indiana Pacers would have written it back in October:

Miami Heat. Eastern Conference finals. Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Sunday afternoon.

The how of what the Indiana Pacers did – earning a best-of-seven clash with the Heat for the third straight postseason, the teams’ second in a row with a trip to The Finals at stake – has been the big unexpected, the big uneasy.

Whether that makes them less dangerous or more dangerous when they face the two-time NBA defending champions, well, we’ll find out soon enough.

The Pacers’ locker room was split on the impact of their two playoff series so far, in the hour or so after their 93-80 victory over the Washington Wizards Thursday night at the Verizon Center. For some, this always will be a bottom-line business and the scoreboard told the tale, Indiana taking the East semifinals series 4-2 over a feisty team on the rise.

For others, the way it wrapped up – the Pacers losing a 16-point lead, falling behind by one, 74-73, with 8:35 to go, on the road – was sufficiently humbling, reminding them, even scaring them, into some perspective and reflection.

To be clear, none of them said anything about feeling less dangerous. But several brushed off the tortuous path they’ve taken to get “back” to this point, while others realized their struggles over the past month or two had both taken a toll and maybe steeled them for more.

Coach Frank Vogel and point guard George Hill were planted firmly in the land of denial. “Everything is behind us,” Vogel said. “Like we said when we started the playoffs, 33-7 [the Pacers’ first-half record] means nothing. How we struggled down the stretch, and took a lot of criticism, that means nothing. That’s behind us and this is where we wanted to be. At the conference finals and a chance to move on.”

Said Hill, asked about people’s perception of the Pacers lately: “People as in, like, you guys? We don’t care about you guys like that. We’re just trying to figure out what’s best for this team in this locker room. Don’t worry about what people are saying about us. Out of all that, we still won [64 games regular and postseason] this year. You can say what you want to, this is a good basketball team.”

Fair enough. But the Pacers got to good by starting out great, then slipping, followed by churning, introspection, vulnerability, bravado, turmoil, resolve, questioning, sniping and redemption. They got well time and again, only to get sick again. The lowly Atlanta Hawks took them to seven games, and the precocious Wizards embarrassed them in Game 5 and rattled them repeatedly. Indiana, the team that so treasured winning home-court advantage through the conference bracket, dropped the openers of both series, got booed at home and went 3-4 at BLFH against the Hawks and Wizards.

So sure, if you go simply by a snapshot, the Pacers are right where they wanted to be. But if you open your assessment to a slideshow, you might land where veteran Washington big man Drew Gooden did Thursday night.

“The Pacers are a team where it’s a roller-coaster ride with them,” Gooden said. “They’re playing elite basketball in spurts. And they’re playing average basketball in spurts.” (more…)

Wizards’ Wall catches up to series

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: The Wizards and Pacers meet for a crucial Game 6 tonight

WASHINGTON – Every coach’s fear in the playoffs is that, if a series lasts long enough, talent will out.

That is, for all the crafty strategies and flawless execution and tireless effort devoted to stopping or containing an opponent’s strength or star, and however effective it might be through three, four or five games, what’s behind that particular greatness will bubble to the surface in time. The great ones – teams or players – adjust and re-adjust, and in time refuse to be denied. (It cuts both ways, of course, but you know coaches, mostly worrying about the other guys.)

That’s how the Indiana Pacers ought to be thinking about Washington’s John Wall at the moment, as they try to close out their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Wall spent most of the first four games stymied by the Pacers’ defensive attention in the halfcourt, their diligence in getting back to slow the Wizards’ pace and his own shooting. But in the Game 5 victory Tuesday that staved off his team’s elimination, Wall scored 27 points (17 in the third quarter on 6-of-8 shooting) and served as triggerman for a road-resuscitated Washington attack.

The fourth-year point guard, an All-Star reserve this year, had carried the weight of the Wizards’ 3-1 deficit through the first four games, taking heat for his 11.5 ppg and 31.4 field-goal percentage. The inexperience at which he, backcourt mate Bradley Beal and coach Randy Wittman had scoffed looked real and very much in play. Wall was starting to withdraw and sound defeated. “It’s definitely tough and frustrating,” Wall said, after a Game 4 finish Sunday in which he passed up a game-tying shot. “I’ve been as aggressive as I can be.”

Or so Wall thought. Then Wittman pulled him aside Tuesday morning in Indianapolis and gave him license to play “like a wild man.” Teammates such as center Marcin Gortat noticed Wall’s retreat personally and made sure to pick him up.

“John was a little bit different [Tuesday],” Gortat said late that evening, after a career night of his own (31 points, 16 rebounds). “For the first time in 102 or 103 games we’ve had this season, he didn’t want to talk to anybody. … He didn’t rap before the game, he didn’t laugh before the game.”

Gortat had seen all sorts of folks assure Wall he would play better in Game 5. Gortat didn’t make hang his support on that, though.

“When the 25th person approached him, it was me, and he was like, ‘I don’t want to hear [anymore].’ I was like, ‘No, John, there’s just one thing I want to tell you: I’m with you. It doesn’t matter which way it’s gonna go. I’m with you,’ ” Gortat said.

“We can’t put pressure on a guy who plays for the first time in his life in the playoffs. He’s whatever, 23 years old. You can’t just blame the kid for everything. Every time our team loses, we blame him. I understand he’s a leader, he’s the head of the snake. But there’s another 12 guys on the team, there’s another six, seven coaches. We can’t do this kid like that.”

Wall played as if unshackled. He got a pair of layups in the early minutes and helped rev the offense to 13 fast-break points while building a 45-38 lead. But it was more than that – the Wizards only scored four points on the break in the second half, yet outscored the Pacers 57-41. It was a pace thing, in Wittman’s view, all flow and timing while maxing out what was available in the 24-second clock. Even the fat rebounding edge (62-23) can partly be attributed to the rhythm with which Washington played, with Wall conducting.

“He gets the ball moving from side to side and we get bodies moving and the ball moving,” Wittman said. “We are not a team that can iso or a team that can do a two-man game. We have to have five guys moving and I thought he was the spark behind that.”

At this late stage of the series, with Wall’s confidence replenished, that will not be easy. The Pacers’ best bet? Stay in front of him as much as possible and funnel penetration toward 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert. Even if it means going under screens, anyone’s best chance against Wall’s wild-man speed is to make him a shooter. Otherwise he gets defenders on their heels, first physically and then mentally.

Beyond that, only a quirky shakiness that settles into Washington’s game at the Verizon Center might help. He’s been one of the Wizards who, all season, has performed better on the road than at home.

But this series may have lasted long enough to cure that ill, too.

Fun gone, Pacers cannot stand success

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: Gortat’s big game helps Wizards beat Pacers, stay alive

INDIANAPOLIS – As they lick their wounds again and assure themselves, again, that they’ll be all right, the Indiana Pacers might be revealing what their biggest problem is in this Eastern Conference semifinal series and perhaps has been for a while.

They aren’t fearful of the Washington Wizards. They aren’t overmatched or intimidated, and they certainly aren’t taking the Wizards lightly.

The Pacers are jealous of the Wizards.

Oh, to be younger and inexperienced and unencumbered by expectations. To be the underdogs – ahh! – who had the ability to surprise and overachieve and feel good with each little victory, regardless even of the outcome of games. It wasn’t that long ago that the Pacers were that team.

With the Miami Heat grabbing all the attention from The Decision of July 2010 going forward, with the Chicago Bulls and Derrick Rose playing peek-a-boo as regular-season heroes and a legit but hobbled contender, it wasn’t that long ago that the Pacers were the Wizards.

On the rise. playing with abandon. Making names and reputations for themselves, with little or no anxiety over disappointing someone. That’s the Indiana team that earned all the respect and preseason predictions heading into 2013-14, that’s the Indiana team that had all the fun.

But that Indiana team is gone forever, erased by the Pacers’ success through the first four months (46-13 through March 2) and weighed down ever since by the expectations, knee-deep praise and dealing with the shift from chasers to chased.

You scoff? Who had more fun in Game 5 Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the on-the-brink Wizards or the three-games-to-win-one Pacers? The game was a rout, with Washington leading by as much as 30 while pounding their hosts in all sorts of NSFW ways on the glass.

Nearly tripling the other guys in total rebounds (62-23)? Whoa. Wizards coach Randy Wittman paused and admitted he never had seen anything like that. For much of the night, Marcin (The Dream) Gortat had as many boards as the whole Indiana team. The upstarts wound up with nearly as many offensive rebounds (18) as the Pacers grabbed defensively (19).

Gortat attacked Indiana from the start like he sensed their vulnerability, the tentativeness that has hovered over the East’s No. 1 seed since March. He tossed in hook shots, threw down dunks, mixed in a turnaround or two from the baselines and growled loudly enough that Indiana’s Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi sought cover.

But frankly, they had company on a Pacers squad that, lately, might not say boo if you took their jerseys, their dogs and their parking spaces. If Larry Bird wasn’t sick to his stomach watching his team’s performance Tuesday, then the smirking assassin everyone remembers from his Boston Celtics days either has been lobotomized or gelded.

“It’s everything: Shocking. Disappointing,” said forward Paul George, who would have had to ring up another 39 to keep his team in this one. He didn’t, scoring 15.

“We’re better than that. No way we should allow a team on our floor to outrebound us by 40. Regardless of if we’re playing a team full of 7-footers. That’s unacceptable.”

It was, in short, the kind of performance a bunch of newbies might be permitted to have – not far off Washington’s 63-point mess in Game 3 – but not the big, bad leaders of the East.

“Not when you’re a group that’s been together for a while,” George said, agreeing. “Not with a group that, like us, has been together, been through so much. A lot of adversity. It should be easy to treat a game like it’s a win-or-go-home game, especially when you have the opportunity to close them out. We’ve done it before in other series, where we took care of business when we needed to. So it’s no excuse for this one.”

No excuses, just explanations. Gortat having the night of his life, banging and scoring enough for both himself and the barely visible Nene. Wittman had his players pressure up defensively this time, exploiting Indiana’s unreliable ball handlers and, more important, dialing up the game’s pace to more than walk-it-up.

And then there was John Wall, Washington’s point guard who had sputtered through most of the first four games. He is kind of a one-man Indiana in terms of his career arc and the expectations heaped upon him now, four years in with an $80 million contract, All-Star acclaim and impatience among Wizards fans for something beyond individual achievements.

Gortat spoke after the game of the shell into which Wall had retreated all day Tuesday, no rapping, no laughing, hardly any words. Wittman did what he could to try to shake him loose from it.

“John was down on himself a little bit this morning,” the Wizards coach said. “I told him, the point where he’s getting in his career, he’s an All-Star and now he’s in the second round of the playoffs for the first time, that ‘you have to have a thick skin. You have to forget quickly and you have to move on.’

“I told him I wanted him to come out tonight and just play like a wild man. ‘If you have 20 turnovers, you have 20 turnovers. I want you, though, energizing our guys, racing the ball up and down the floor, defensively getting after it,’ and he did that.”

Wall played with an abandon the Pacers, however much they once had it, lost around the time our clocks sprung forward. He finished with 27 points – 17 in the game-breaking 31-14 third quarter, when he topped the Pacers by his lonesome – and was woofing by the end.

Wall had more fun, and a sense of relief and rebirth, than the entire Indiana squad. Over on the other side, George was trying to explain, and maybe sell, what had gone on with his team at the absolute worst time. And you could sense some longing for the days when he and the Pacers were the ones trying to make their bones.

They’re at the other end of the expectations now.

“We get too happy. We get too happy,” Paul said. “We don’t carry that same mindset after we win a couple of games. We get comfortable and we feel like, because we’re starting to play a little better, that things are just going to get right. We don’t bring that edge, that these are must-win games.”

The Pacers claimed they tried to play Tuesday as if they were facing a Game 7. They failed, instead inching closer to a real one.

Much to prove in G5 for Pacers, Wizards

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: Let’s Go! Wizards-Pacers Game 5

INDIANAPOLIS – Both the Indiana Pacers and the Washington Wizards have opportunities to prove something Tuesday night in Game 5 that doesn’t have much to do with the conclusion or extension of their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup.

Sure, the Pacers hold a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. But this one is important unto itself for what it might say about the Pacers or, more accurately, permit them to say about themselves.

All is well? You’re right where you were supposed to be? Maybe, maybe not. Indiana has had false starts before over the past month or so. Victories over Chicago and Miami, nailing down the East’s No. 1 seed, ousting Atlanta from Round 1 – those all supposedly were all-clear signs, only to have Indiana veer soon enough off the rails again.

Now they have the Wizards where they want them – on the brink of elimination, on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court – and a chance to smack down what had been a hot team and a trendy East semis pick just a week ago. The Pacers got an other-worldly game from Roy Hibbert in Game 2, pounced on a stinko performance by Washington in Game 3 (hey, almost every playoff team has one at some point) and rode on Paul George‘s lean shoulders to their comeback from 19 down in Game 4.

This would be the one, then, in which the Pacers could do themselves and their fan base proud. Start their engines, stomp on the pedal, click off 48 minutes worth of counter-clockwise laps and send the Wizards from the Brickyard to the graveyard. By ending this in a gentleman’s sweep, by asserting some real No. 1-ness over the conference’s No. 5 seed, by skipping the drama and drain of another trip to Washington and grabbing some flex days for themselves before opening the East finals at home, they could convince a few more skeptics and add legitimacy to their claim of being, y’know, back.

They also could back up what their coach, Frank Vogel, said last Sunday about playoff experience, something the Wizards are just now sampling. Remember, this season, this postseason push, is the culmination of something Indiana has been building for four years. One round, two rounds, three round, with its sight set on The Finals now.

That’s why the questions about playoff experience – habitually dismissed by Randy Wittman when asked about his youngish Wizards – get embraced by Vogel.

“I actually think it’s a big deal. It’s a big factor,” Vogel said. “I think experience in the playoffs gives you confidence. Not just overall experience, but experience as a group.  This group has been there. They’ve got an incredible young nucleus and they have veterans that have been there, but not this unit. I think it’s a factor and hopefully it continues to work well for us.”

Wittman wants to cast that theory aside, at least until his players get their exit interviews. After Game 4, the Wizards’ newness to all this was offered up as an explanation for getting outscored 57-37 in the second half. And for a failure to execute with 6.1 seconds left and a chance to tie. And for every mishap before or in between.

“Why do I want to talk about inexperience? All that is is an excuse,” Wittman said. “I don’t want our guys looking for an excuse. They’re gonna grow, they’re gonna continue to do the things that they’re gonna do. This is a process. All right? But right now, I’m not blaming any of this on any youth or inexperience or who’s been in the playoffs and who hasn’t. We’re in the fight. We’ve got to stay in the fight. No excuses. And we’ve got to do down and win a game.”

The Wizards will need John Wall to do better than 11.5 points a game on 31.4 percent shooting, and to have more of a plan when he drives the ball besides simply shying away from the 7-foot-2 Hibbert. The big fellow has been in Bradley Beal‘s head, too, but with George blanketing Beal on the perimeter, the middle might be Beal’s best bet.

George, after his 39-point burst in Game 4, is going to require more professional defense than Trevor Ariza gave. The Nene who caused such fits for Chicago and center Joakim Noah in the first round is scoring just 11.8 points and pulling down just 4.3 rebounds a game in this series. He’s shooting 35.7 percent.

And then there is the third quarter, an Indiana strength all season and current a Washington crisis. The Pacers have controlled those 12 minutes after halftime in all four games, with a combined scoring edge of 42. The rest of the quarters the Wizards have been plus-19. It hasn’t mattered.

“We haven’t been able to figure that out,”  Washington’s Al Harrington said Sunday. “That’s been us all year. [In the] third quarter, we just always seem to come out slow and sluggish. And then we find a way to ramp it up toward the end of the quarter and throughout the fourth quarter. In the playoffs at this time of year, you can’t afford that, especially against a good team.”

Indiana can reassert itself as that and sway some remaining doubters. Washington can learn on the fly and claim the knock-knock-knocking stuff is overrated.

That’s what is on the line in Game 5.

Clippers not planning to stick with CP3 on Durant

By Scott Howard-Cooper,

VIDEO: The Inside crew discusses L.A.’s decision to use CP3 on Kevin Durant

LOS ANGELES — A man walks into a bar.


Here’s a better one:

Chris Paul defends Kevin Durant.

That’s it. No punch line. No laugh track. Just a 6-foot, 185-pound point guard sent to check a 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward who, in his spare time when he’s not busy being bigger than Paul, is the reigning scoring champion. Even people Durant’s own size are handed a cigarette and blindfold when they are given the assignment, and Paul gets word Sunday afternoon in a playoff game with his Clippers already trailing the Thunder 2-1 and 3-1 coming fast.

And CP3 was still upright Sunday night. Not just that, Paul on Durant, with a lot of double-team rescue missions, was part of the small lineup in the fourth quarter that keyed the improbable L.A. turnaround from 22 points down in the first period and 16 down with a little more than nine minutes remaining to the 101-99 victory at Staples Center.

“That’s called desperate coaching,” said the most desperate of coaches at Staples Center, the Clippers’ Doc Rivers.

Durant scored 10 of his game-high 40 points in the fourth, but didn’t truly step on Paul. The MVP took only five shots, half as many as Russell Westbrook and only two more than Reggie Jackson. Durant committed three turnovers and didn’t help the Thunder beat the double teams, with no assists in the 12 minutes.

The Clippers staff talked Saturday about how Durant had been beating them with his dribble, either getting to the basket himself or forcing the defense to collapse and creating openings for Thunder shooters, and decided a guard on him in Game 4 could be a counter. Plus, the coaches had nothing to lose by that point. The Clips were getting pushed out of their own building, a 3-1 hole with the Western Conference semifinals about to head back to Oklahoma City would have been close to insurmountable, and so, sure, why not.

Rivers put Paul, one of the best backcourt defenders in the league, on Durant some late in Game 3, but nothing like this. This was sticking with it. This was sending at least one extra body at KD every post catch and forcing him to either score from there, an acceptable alternative considering he wouldn’t be at the rim or threatening to put L.A.’s season on the clock with 3-pointers.

Durant was asked about the challenge Paul presents and said, “He doesn’t. It’s not a one-on-one. When I catch the ball, they sent a double-team. They did a good job of crowding me, making me get rid of the ball. When it’s one-on-one, I got the advantage.”

For all the Oklahoma City delight over Durant’s growth as a distributor the last couple years, the Clippers will obviously consider it a success anytime he has to pass out of the double-team rather than get a shot. Five shots in the fourth quarter of a close playoff game is somewhere around the success of winning the lottery.

“I really can’t answer that,” Jackson, the Thunder’s backup point guard, said of Durant being muted down the stretch. “We’ve just got to find ways to get (Durant) open shots. We’ve got to punish them for doing that, for making a call such as putting Chris Paul on KD. We’ve got to punish them for it. Size difference. Everybody sees it. We’ve got to find ways to get him the ball easier and if they double just make them pay.”

Said OKC coach Scott Brooks: “That’s something we’ll look at in the film. Kevin was having trouble getting the catches…. But it was physical out there. I’ll just say that. It was physical. But we have to do a better job of getting him open, freeing him up.”

Plotting the counter comes with the Clippers saying — saying — they won’t go Paul on Durant much when the 2-2 series resumes Tuesday night in Oklahoma City. Rivers calls it a “situational” maneuver, not a regular strategy that will be deployed moving forward. The physical toll on CP3 is too much.

“It’s tough,” Paul said. “He was the MVP for a reason, you know what I mean. Early in the game, when things weren’t going right, I went to Doc and said, ‘Might be 48 minutes tonight.’ KD is a great scorer. I don’t know. It’s tough at times because you try and defend him as well as trying to stay aggressive offensively. Same thing I went through last series (against the Warriors). At the end of the day, you’ve just got to do whatever it takes to win.”

It turned out that Paul had a slow day in Game 4. Only 45 minutes.

There’s the punch line. Cue the laugh track.

George fends off fatigue, grows game, drags Indiana to 3-1 lead

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: Paul George goes off in Pacers win

WASHINGTON – On the morning of what became possibly the biggest night of his NBA life, Paul George sat in an empty arena and talked about the lessons he had learned, the strides he had taken, by going to the playoffs year after year and ultimately going home disappointed.

George, the Indiana Pacers’ All-Star wing player, spoke of Bradley Beal, the Washington Wizards’ smooth 20-year-old shooting guard, a kid who is the same age George was when he first dipped a toe into this postseason business. He talked of John Wall, the Wizards’ quicksilver point guard who was born four months later (1990) but drafted nine spots higher (2010), and how Wall is playing catch-up in playoff savvy and wiles.

“Man, it’s gonna take those guys some time,” George said. “I remember my first playoff run my rookie year…”

Uh, since it came in 2011, in a five-game series against Chicago, it hadn’t exactly faded into the mists of time. But George went on for a bit, old head on a young body, in that if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now way to which we’re all prone.

“I know what to expect come around this time,” George said. “It’s just another level.”

Forget Beal and Wall. You want to know who took his game and himself to another level Sunday night?

Paul George did.

George had a night that showed, 10 days after his 24th birthday, that he’s not done learning yet. The Pacers’ young All-Star half-carried, half-willed his team to its 95-92 victory over Washington in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series at the Verizon Center.

By scoring 39 points, by grabbing 12 rebounds, by nailing seven of his 10 3-point attempts and by cross-guarding and chasing around Beal for the 42 minutes the Wizards guard was on the court (then playing nearly five minutes before that), George kicked himself to another level of NBA renown. The guy who had drawn comparisons early in his career to Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen – overlooked college background, long arms, defensive bent – came through like Pippen and  Michael Jordan Sunday, staking Indiana to a 3-1 lead in the series with a chance to close it out Tuesday in Indianapolis.

Grabbing the Pacers by the scruffs of their necks – he scored 28 points in the second half, helping to obliterate the Wizards’ 55-38 halftime lead – George demonstrated that experience and growth can come at any point. He had played 45 postseason games prior to Sunday, not one of them like this one.

“I kept wanting to try and give him a rest, and he kept saying no,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “Usually I will override that, but he kept making big shots. When a guy is going like that, I leave him in. … It was a special performance.”

Vogel had talked with George before the game, offering to spare him the grind of shadowing Beal, Washington’s most dangerous scorer in the series (19.3 ppg through Game 3). “No, I want the matchup,” George told his coach. He considered Beal “single-handedly capable of beating us,” so he wasn’t going to leave that to Lance Stephenson or anyone else. (The way Stephenson’s been going, the Pacers might not want to leave the morning doughnut run to him.)

Said George: “I knew every horn that sounded wasn’t somebody coming to get me. I already had it in my head that I would pretty much go the whole distance.”

George got his only breather, a whole 1:37, near the end of the first quarter. But with Indiana’s bench playing like four guys grabbed at random off Pennsylvania Ave. – they got outscored 32-2 by Washington’s reserves – that was it. All the Pacers starters played big minutes, none played longer or lugged the load at both ends the way George did.

His team’s second quarter could have been disastrous – 11 points, 2-for-17 shooting, the Wizards racing to 11 fast-break points quicker than the Pacers could backpedal. But whether it was a rush of standard-issue adrenaline or a more frantic case of fight-or-flight, George stayed in.

Washington still was up 17 halfway through the third, 68-51, when – in some order – the Pacers stirred some, George got a second wind, Roy Hibbert find an awkward but effective groove offensively and a 17-2 run had all but silenced the Verizon Center crowd. There might have been huffing and puffing from the exertion but there apparently wasn’t an inordinate amount of woofing from George, even as he dragged his club back from the brink.

“To tell you the truth, he’s just a quiet guy,” Hibbert said. “We talk, we joke, but when it comes to basketball, I always believe in that guy no matter what.”

Said George: “We all looked at one another. We really didn’t think this game was going to be over with. We didn’t think we were going to lose this game. There was so much time left. … Even when they went on a run, it felt like it wasn’t blows that put us away.”

The Wizards scored 17 in the third quarter, George scored 13. They got 20 in the fourth, he had 15. From halftime on, Hibbert scored 15, as much as any two Washington guys, while George doubled up on Beal (eight points) and Wall (six).

The job George did on Beal might have slipped past some untrained eyes – Beal led Washington with 20 points and shot 7-for-14. But he had to move and work to shed George, which limited him as a deep threat and often put him in the lane with, like Wall, the 7-foot-2 Hibbert on the brain.

“He shot less jumpers,” George said. “He was more cutting to the basket and trying to pick up easy ones that way – which was a counter I felt like they did against me, to use the denial to get to the basket for back-door [plays].”

Said Beal: “He made my job tough. … I’ve got to do a better job of trying to get him tired.”

Good luck with that. Because George did not tire Sunday – because he did all the heavy lifting, from carrying his buddies’ butts to clean-and-jerking his profile ever higher – he and Indiana are one victory away from four days of rest. And another round.

Clippers beat up, but not beaten

By Scott Howard-Cooper,

VIDEO: The Clippers storm from 22 down to shock the Thunder in Game 4

LOS ANGELES — His face worn with the exhaustion of recent weeks, the top button of his white dress shirt undone and the burgundy tie splashed with silver and light blue loosened, Doc Rivers dropped into a chair at the front of the room for the post-game press conference.

He let out a big exhale.

“Would you like to make an opening statement or go right to questions?” the Clippers’ coach was asked at the start.

“No, I want a beer,” Rivers said, drawing laughter from the gathered media even if he wasn’t joking.

He was spent. All the Clippers were. It was a physical Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, with Blake Griffin playing the final 8:44 with five fouls and being sent in by Rivers with one instruction, to play with the energy of someone with one foul. Chris Paul gave away nine inches and some 55 pounds while defending Kevin Durant and lived to tell. Griffin got a fist to the groin from Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka.

The Clippers came back to somehow beat the Thunder 101-99 on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center and tie the series 2-2 because they were scrappy, not because they were flashy. If this was Lob City, it was the working-class section.

Paul on Durant? “That’s called desperate coaching,” Rivers said. The Clippers were anxiously searching, even reaching, for something to administer CPR.

Scoring 38 points in the fourth quarter to win? The defense was the offense. L.A. went small — Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Paul, Danny Granger and Griffin most of the final period — and forced turnovers that became fast-break baskets.

The new energy in the final period? Rivers hoped that trapping more would generate the turnovers, but he also saw that it energized the Clippers to be more aggressive than they had been most of the game that existed before in an alternate universe, the one where the Thunder owned the arena, were coasting to a second win in a row and about to head home to close out the series Tuesday night.

“I think we just willed this one,” Paul said.

Willed it.

Forged it.

Dug deep for it.

The Clippers season was quickly — and, under the circumstances, easily — slipping away, falling into a 12-point hole with only 4:51 gone and having that turn into 22 points, at 29-7, after 9:01. There was zero atmosphere from the home crowd. A 3-1 deficit against a very good team was looming large. And when L.A. did close within 39-35 about midway through the second quarter, the Thunder seemed to slam the door with another demoralizing surge that restored order with a 15-point lead with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter. The cushion was still 12 heading into the fourth.

Rivers’ lineup to start the most important 12 minutes of the season was Glen Davis, Collison, Granger, Crawford and DeAndre Jordan. Paul replaced Davis after 53 seconds. Griffin went in for Jordan and the closest thing to a last stand, given the long odds of beating the Thunder three times in a row with two of the games in OKC, was set for the final 8:44.

“We really locked in on defense,” Crawford said. “We were down 22 at one point and we kept believing and never gave up. We refused to lose. It was a big-time win. I’m not sure that win happens on the road. Like I said, the crowd was terrific tonight and they played a huge part.”

Paul was on the court for all but 3 minutes 2 seconds. Griffin went 40 minutes, Crawford 34, or about nine more than his playoff average. Rivers was weary and he didn’t walk into a size mismatch or get told by Ibaka to turn his head and cough.

“I just thought we hung in there,” Rivers said. “We searched for combinations. We went completely unconventional. We went ultra-small. We put Danny at the four. His numbers won’t show it, but Danny Granger was huge for us. He kept guys from getting rebounds. I thought his length was a factor. Then obviously Jamal and (Collison) in that small lineup, that won the game for us. I’m not sure we ever used that lineup. But that group won the game for us tonight.”

That settles it then. Beers all around.

Pacers stir from scoring slumber

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: What to expect in Pacers-Wizards, Game 4

WASHINGTON – The first half in Game 3 of the Indiana-Washington series was so ugly, its tone and pace dialed all the way down to “muck,” that some people missed what might have been a turning point: From halftime to the final horn, the Pacers went on a veritable scoring spree, hanging 51 on their hosts at the Verizon Center in a 85-63 victory.

It was as if James Bond emerged from a swamp, unzipped and shed his frogman gear and strode toward the arch-villain’s mansion in full tuxedo. Except more unexpected, because that’s not how Indiana usually rolls.

With 26 points in the third quarter and 25 in the second, it was the first time in the series and only the third in the Pacers’ 10 playoff games of 2014 that they’d backed up consecutive quarters in a game of 25 points or more. That’s three times out of a possible 30. They did it in Game 5 against Atlanta in the first round (27 in the third, 30 in the fourth, despite losing) after having done it in Game 2 (27 in the second, 31 in the third).

It was also the fifth time in 10 games (or 20 chances) that Indiana scored 51 points or more in a half.

So much of the focus in this series has been on Indiana’s defense and Washington’s offense that the flip side can get overlooked. That’s fine with the Pacers, who draw their identity from stopping the other guys’ attack. With John Wall (his scratched eye should be no factor in Game 4 on Sunday) and Bradley Beal sparking the Wizards, it’s even a priority.

But when the Pacers get into some rhythm and aren’t standing around or forcing the ball through center Roy Hibbert, good things happen for them. They were 28-2 when scoring 100 points or more in the regular season, compared to 28-24 when falling short. When the ball was moving to the tune of at least 20 assists: 38-5.

In the second half of Game 3, Indiana dished for 14 of its 20 assists, shot 48.7 percent from the floor and sank five of its 10 3-point attempts. The Pacers had been 14 of 34 from the arc through the series’ first five halves.

“We have to dial into their defensive scheme,” coach Frank Vogel said. “Offensive basketball is just about taking what the defense gives you. We don’t always do that. … It’s just a matter of attacking with force and taking what the defense gives you.”

Wing Paul George said of the 51-point half: “We played with a lot of energy. We were cutting with force, moving the ball. We were screening better, reading plays better. Just using their pressure, really, against them. They want to pressure up and deny wings. We were just driving gaps and being aggressive off the dribble.”

Might that represent a breakthrough for Indiana’s offense? George wasn’t about to go that far, as his team looked at a 3-1 lead or 2-2 tie in the series.

“We want to compound stops and go from there,” he said. “If we hold an opponent to 60, 70 points, there’s not much scoring needs to be done.”

Wall seeks break-out game, Pacers pray

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: Pacers-Wizards: Game 4 Preview

WASHINGTON – John Wall‘s breakthrough this season for the Washington Wizards, beyond staying healthy, has been his ability to take the team’s pulse, on the fly, and more often than not provide precisely the right mix of scoring, playmaking, defense, leadership and pace.

It’s a tricky formula, crafted from feel rather than from recipe, tweaked from night to night, subject to the competition, swings in momentum and assorted circumstances. And at the moment, it’s off. Way off. “New Coke” off.

Wall’s growing maturity in reading a game hasn’t averted Washington’s 2-1 hole in the best-of-seven series with the Indiana Pacers. Even when he reverted to some me-first tactics in the ugly Game 3 Pacers victory, his teammates didn’t prosper, the payoff wasn’t there and the fourth-year point guard never could find the right gear.

“John was trying to push it,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said after the 85-63 loss. “I didn’t think we had [four other] guys running with him the way we are capable of doing,”

Springtime is for graduations, but this is a school with few shortcuts to a degree. As eager as Wall and the Wizards are to startle the NBA again (having already beaten Chicago) by advancing to the Eastern Conference finals, class still is in session for the playoff newbies.

Playoff games come rapidly. Series, even those that go long, begin and end in a fortnight. Guys like Wall and Bradley Beal can learn as they go, but a lot of what they’re uploading now won’t fully get processed until they’re done. The Wizards will be better for this – whatever this is, all the way up to The Finals – in the coming years. But it’s coming at them now.

“I can’t even process it or even think about it,” Wall said after practice Saturday at the Verizon Center. “Basically you’re trying to prepare yourself and think about each game, and look forward to the next one. We’ve put [Game 3] behind us. Watched film today of what we need to do and what we’re capable of doing.”

The video from Friday’s game revealed plenty of the former, in all its conspicuous absence, but not much of the latter. There wasn’t a Wizard among them who played well; forward Trevor Ariza was the best of the bunch with 12 points and 15 rebounds, but Washington needed something more like Ariza’s Game 1 output offensively (22 points).

The rest of them missed shots, missed free throws or turned over the ball, and Wall did all three, with the additional culpability of not dictating the pace better for their offense. Forty-eight hours after bemoaning their inability to run – they had just a lone fast-break point in Game 2 – the Wizards knew they had failed again in merely tying Indiana, 8-8, in that stat in Game 3.

Wall knew, too, that “pace” is bigger than a few quick, breakout baskets.

“It ain’t just about pushing and trying to get fast breaks,” the point guard said. “It’s about putting pace into the game and getting a lot of possessions. That’s when we’re at our best.”

“Just after misses or makes, I think we still have to push the ball. Sometimes when they make it, we try to walk the ball up the court. Then you’re getting into your offense at like 10 or 11 seconds – then you’re basically going to stay on one side of the court the whole time. We’re a better team when we get it up there at 18, 19 seconds and go side-to-side to make those guys move.”

Spotty ball movement contributed to Washington’s 32.9 percent shooting (24 of 73). That led to Wall forcing a few things, which led to his seven turnovers. In this series so far, he is averaging 11.3 points, 7.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals. In the two losses, Wall has missed 18 of his 26 shots and owns a minus-25 in the Wizards’ 26-point scoring deficit.

While Beal, the 20-year-old shooting guard, has boosted his performance in the postseason – from 17.1 points per game to 19.6, from a 14.3 PER to 17.7 – Wall has not. He is shooting 34.2 percent (15.8 percent on 3-pointers), his offensive/defensive ratings have flipped (106/104 in the regular season, 98/102 now) and his own PER has fallen from 19.5 to 14.5.

Wall, 23, continues to work and learn daily from Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell, who was a master of mid-range shots and pace (without nearly Wall’s foot speed). The point guard and Wittman talk 1-on-1 almost daily, and especially after games. “We’ll sit down again [Sunday] morning and go over some things that I think he’ll be able to take advantage of,” Wittman said. “But we’ve always done that.”

The Pacers don’t expect that chat to get too intricate. “I think our guys are just running back and praying because it’s obviously a very tough assignment to stop him in the open court,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys made some spectacular plays in those open-court situations, but you can just hope to limit him as much as possible, he’s so electric.”

Paul George said his team remembers all too well the 37 points Wall hung on them in April 2013 when he shot 16-for-25. “We understand that at some point, he’s going to have a good game,” said George, an East All-Star teammate of Wall in February. “He can single-handedly beat us.”

Wall claimed the Wizards’ loss in Game 2 was his responsibility, though it seemed more like a leadership move than an accurate assessment. He was back to exuding confidence Saturday in spite of the second defeat.

“I think I’m going a good job. Nobody on our team’s really shot the ball well this series, to be honest,” Wall said.

“The Game 2 loss was definitely mine. But other than that, I just run my team as much as possible. Try to get those guys going. I know my team feeds off how I get into the paint, how I get guys open shots, and also create for myself. So unless I’m doing that job, then I’m not doing my job.”