Indiana Pacers star Paul George posed for the cameras as his half-court heave sailed through the air. Lance Stephenson tried to throw two balls at once over his shoulder. Roy Hibbert smiled when his shot clanked off the rim and guard George Hill shimmied his shoulders after his attempt swished through the net. They all yelled their approval once a team equipment manager did the same.
For another team, this would simply be another diversion during another off-day shoot-around of another playoff series. Not so for these Pacers, who have endured rumors of locker room discord and chemistry issues for weeks.
Which made the scene Saturday morning at George Washington’s Smith Center, less than 24 hours after lndiana seized control of its Eastern Conference semifinal against the Washington Wizards with an 85-63 Game 3 victory, all the more important.
The mood was light and Indiana was loose as could be, armed with a 2-1 series lead and game film that offered definitive proof, at least for one night, that “we’re back to being us,” Coach Frank Vogel said.
Heading into Game 4 Sunday night at Verizon Center, the Pacers have won four of their past five games, something they hadn’t accomplished in nearly two months.
And whether it was the hounding defense on Wizards guards John Wall and Bradley Beal, the verticality of Hibbert at the rim or the balanced scoring and ball movement on offense, the Pacers have drawn comfort from a Game 3 performance that, while ugly at times, followed the template that allowed them to secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference in the first place.
“We just had to remember who we are,” added George, who had a game-high 23 points in Game 3. “We’ve always been that team just to keep everything in house, not really worry about what’s going on in the outside, about what’s going on with the media. So we just had to refocus and remember who we were as a team.”
Hibbert believes all the controversy of late — be it the team’s inconsistent play, rumors of behind-the-scenes unrest or his own zero-point, zero-rebound performance in Game 1 of this series — forced the Pacers to close ranks and “lock in” on the game plan in recent days because “we expected more from ourselves.”
So for the past two games, they sprinted back on defense to keep Wall out of transition, contested nearly every three-pointer and clogged the lane on every Wizards drive. In Game 3, Washington set a franchise low for points and failed to eclipse 18 points in any quarter.
“Our energy and our activity was as high as it’s been defensively and it showed up in the scoreboard for us,” forward David West said.
But the re-emergence of Hibbert, the 7-foot-2 former Georgetown star, also has proven crucial. His length and interior scoring have been welcome additions to a series Vogel believes could be determined by how many bad Indiana possessions lead to Washington fast breaks.
That Hibbert is smiling again — the former All-Met credits a chat with Georgetown Coach John Thompson III and a fishing trip with George before Game 2 for helping his turnaround the past two games — was also not lost on his coach.
“I think our guys derive energy off of when Roy starts to get going offensively,” Vogel said. “I think he lifts up our whole group and gives us sort of an emotional lift that sort of energizes us on both ends. It’s good to see good things happen to good people.”
The Pacers, though, are wary of satisfaction at this point. Too many times during this roller coaster run of a season, they have allowed such feelings of accomplishment to creep in far earlier than they should.
As George put it: “We’ve got to know what team is coming out to play every night.”
Which is why he struggled to fall asleep during the wee hours of Saturday morning, his mind drifting between the good of Game 3, the winding journey to get there and the challenges that lie ahead in Game 4.
“In no way do we want to be complacent right now, George said. “We want to put our foot on the gas and stomp our foot on their throats because this is a dangerous team. This is a very dangerous team with a lot of weapons, so we got to get another win and then we’ll be satisfied going home and feel like we did our job getting two wins here.”