When it was over and the Indiana Pacers sent the red-and-white-clad crowd home wondering if Verizon Center had hosted its final game of the NBA postseason, the only clues that star Paul George had just finished a virtuoso playoff performance Sunday night came from his sweat-soaked yellow jersey and the ice packs wrapped around his quads, knees and calves. But with his hands interlocked behind his head and legs stretched out across a folding chair, he was otherwise a postgame picture of satisfaction.
George had willed his team back from a 19-point second-half deficit with a steady barrage of big three-pointers. He refused to leave the game or abandon his defensive assignment on Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal. When Coach Frank Vogel pleaded with him to take a breather, George refused.
He even ended Game 4 with the ball in his hands, moments after grabbing the final rebound that ultimately clinched Indiana’s 95-92 victory.
“What Paul George did tonight was special,” Vogel said. “There’s no way else to put it.”
The Pacers grabbed a 3-1 lead over the Wizards in this Eastern Conference semifinal series behind George’s 39 points — a career playoff high — and 12 rebounds, a scintillating effort that allowd Indiana to head back home for Game 5 confident it will have the best player on the floor.
George was electric, scoring 11 points in the first quarter. He was just starting. He had 13 points in the third quarter, combining with Roy Hibbert for Indiana’s final 18 points of the period when Washington’s lead was trimmed to one.
When the Wizards regained a nine-point advantage in the fourth quarter, George answered with two consecutive three-pointers and Indiana’s next eight points. He then delivered the Pacers the lead for the first time since the end of the first quarter on two free throws with 2 minutes 24 seconds remaining in regulation, part of a 15-point fourth quarter.
He finished 12 of 20 from the field, doubling the number of field goals he had gotten in any previous game this series primarily going against Trevor Ariza.
“Everything was within the flow of the offense,” forward David West said. “He just made play after play for us.”
All the while, George refused to head to the bench when Vogel asked if he needed to rest. George played all 24 minutes of the second half on a night when Indiana’s five starters scored all but two of its points.
“I knew every horn, that sound, wasn’t coming to get me. I already had it in my head. I was going to pretty much go the whole distance,” George said. “There was a moment where I was pretty gassed, but that second wind kicked in. Once we started to build momentum, it seemed like I wasn’t getting tired. I was just in a rhythm and it carried out through the whole game.”
When the evening began, every little detail the Pacers accounted for in their Game 3 drubbing of the Wizards — the crisp ball movement, the methodical pace, the grinding defense — vanished during a first half that went exactly as the home team hoped. Careless turnovers turned into Wizards fastbreaks, and Indiana’s bench appeared helpless when a trio of seemingly ageless veterans — Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Drew Gooden — began making plays like it was a decade ago.
The Pacers connected on just 3 of their 17 shot attempts in the second quarter, and the lack of offense weakened a defense that had proven so effective just two nights earlier. Beal, Ariza and Nene found open shots more easily with the faster tempo and a Nene jumper to start the third quarter gave Washington a 57-38 lead. The Wizards equaled their point total from Game 3 (63) a few minutes later.
But George proved to be too much on both ends of the floor. He again hounded Beal around the court on defense. Though Beal finished with 20 points, he was 1 for 5 in the fourth quarter.
“It was special as a group,” George said. “We all looked at one another and 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 and every shot, even when they went on a run, it didn’t feel like it was blows that put us away. It was just a great group win. Everybody played a part.”
No one more than George.