Indiana Pacers star Paul George strode to the microphone Friday night and began his postgame news conference with a disclaimer. What had just transpired on the floor at Verizon Center, he admitted, “was probably the ugliest game of the postseason.”
He then offered the sort of grin only someone accustomed to such slugfests could muster.
“But this is our style of basketball,” George said.
The Washington Wizards watched their playoff momentum grind to a halt in a 85-63 Game 3 loss to the Pacers that rewrote the franchise’s record books for all the wrong reasons. It was the fewest points the Wizards have scored in any game and the fourth fewest points scored in an NBA playoff game during the shot clock era.
In the process, Indiana rediscovered the regular season identity that seemed to be lost during its roller coaster ride through this postseason.
“Every now and then, this team is fortunate to get hot offensively, but what we do is play defense,” George said. “We’ve struggled along the way, but . . . I honestly feel like we’re getting back to just blocking out everything. We’ve got to this point by playing defense. That’s what we did tonight.”
The Pacers held Washington to 32.9 percent shooting from the field, and the Wizards never eclipsed 20 points in any quarter. No player shot even 50 percent for the Wizards, who committed 17 turnovers — seven of them by John Wall.
Indiana kept the pace methodical, and the fluid passing that marked Washington’s surge through the playoffs turned into bricked shots and careless miscues. The Pacers, meanwhile, committed just nine turnovers and shot close to 49 percent in the second half to help keep Wall out of transition.
But Indiana had maintained a quiet confidence throughout the lead up to a pivotal Game 3, even though many pundits had quickly anointed Washington as the favorites to emerge in this series after its convincing Game 1 victory. But the Pacers adjusted well in their Game 2 win — an 86-82 triumph in Indianapolis on Wednesday — and found several tactics that again proved successful Friday.
As center Roy Hibbert put it after another strong 14-point, three-block showing: “We’re a team that’s been together for a while, and we try to figure teams out.”
“We’re taking baby steps,” George added.
Over the past two games, the Pacers became more cognizant of Washington’s three-point shooters and won the rebounding battle. Guard Lance Stephenson and George stopped crashing the offensive glass, instead setting up their own wall to stop Wall any time he tried to break out in the open court. And after 20-year-old Washington guard Bradley Beal scored 25 points in Game 1, Pacers Coach Frank Vogel has had George almost exclusively hound him around the court.
Beal shot just 6 for 19 from the floor Friday night and conceded George’s length and physicality have been bothersome.
“They didn’t make anything easy,” Beal said. “They were all together on one page on the defensive end, and we’ve just got to figure out a way on offense to get guys moving and get guys the ball in the right spot. . . .
“I didn’t feel comfortable playing in that because they were slowing the ball down a little bit, and I don’t even know what the final score was. I don’t even know how many points we had. It didn’t even feel like it was a fast-paced game at all.”
So it only made sense Indiana’s defining 20-4 third-quarter run took almost nine minutes, with defensive stops paving the way for George Hill three-pointers and slashes to the basket by Stephenson. The Pacers wrestled away momentum from Washington for good in a game that at times resembled a wrestling match.
Which suited Indiana just fine. The uglier the better for these Pacers.
“We have defensive confidence against most teams,” Vogel said. “We know when we’re at our best, we’re tough to score on.”