Let’s not carried away here because it’s just one game and the Pacers have only gotten back the home court advantage they lost in game one. But boy is it gratifying to see some Blue Collar, Gold Swagger again tonight in a second half for the ages as the Pacers held the Wizards to a franchise low in points in an 85-63 romp.
It was ugly, but it was vintage Pacers basketball, the type of dominant stuff we haven’t seen since November, when they were nearly unstoppable. And it didn’t start off that way. The Wizards came out the more energetic team, and even though the Pacers were slightly better on offense they gave up 7 offensive rebounds in the first quarter to allow the Wiz to hang around and tie it at 17-17.
The second quarter was not pretty for either side, though I’d like to think it was more good defense than bad offense. Nonetheless, the Pacers held a 34-33 lead at the half, and it seemed whoever could find their offense after the break would likely be the victor.
A couple of possessions into the second half the tide began to turn in the Pacers’ favor. They finally began moving the ball instead of standing around, making the extra pass instead of forcing the bad shot, running the offense instead of running down the shot clock. They just seemed sharper, more confident, less hesitant. It wasn’t quite San Antonio-esque, but it was as good as I’ve seen the Pacers play on offense these playoffs. And even after a 12-0 run to open up an 11-point lead, the Pacers never let up. By the end of the third the Pacers led 60-45, and the Wizards never got closer than 11 the rest of the way. The Wiz had just 3 offensive rebounds after the first quarter and shot 32.9% from the field. They also had 17 turnovers and just 8 fast break points, as many as their opponent. Shooting 11-21 from the line did not help either.
Perhaps the Wizards were suffering from a bit of “Pacers syndrome”, believing in their own hype and losing some of their shine after having become the media darlings of the playoffs after a good start. Or maybe the Pacers are starting — at last — to regain their defensive identity.
I thought the turning point was when Drew Gooden flopped on a couple of possessions in a row, one of them resulting in a foul on David West (and he let the refs know about it). After that, the refs stopped giving the Wizards the benefit of the doubt on all the flailing and falling over and the Pacers took charge by doing what they do best — defending without fouling.
The game certainly contained some promising signs that the Pacers are turning the corner. Roy Hibbert was smiling and had a bounce in his step on his way to 14 points and 5 rebounds on 6-9 shooting. It was half the production he had last game (28 and 9), but the Pacers will take that any day of the week after the sewage he had been producing for months.
Lance Stephenson was less out of control and played incredibly smart at both ends of the court, with David West singling out his effort on the defensive end after the game. Born Ready did not shoot well again, going just 4-13 for 9 points, but he did have 7 rebounds and 5 assists against a single turnover. The Pacers are so much better when he acts as all-round playmaker rather than overdribbler.
Paul George continued to struggle with his shot, going 6-15 from the field, but he found ways to contribute by forcing his way to the free throw line, converting 9-10 to giving him a game-high 23 points along with 8 rebounds and 4 assists.
David West missed some shots he normally makes and finished with 12 on 6-14 shooting but was in beast mode late in the game when the Wizards were trying to make a run, nailing a couple of big jumpers to take the wind out of their sails.
George Hill was the X-factor tonight and I loved his assertiveness. No one can stop John Wall in the open court, but in the half court Hill was about as effective as you could have expected of him in helping limit Wall to 15 points and 7 turnovers.
The bench was not great, but good enough. Luis Scola hit some shots late in garbage time to finish with 11, and Ian Mahinmi continues to be an inspiration by playing solid team ball without giving a crap about his minutes or his points. You look at the state sheet and think he hasn’t done much, but Mahinmi’s been one of the most impressive revelations of the Pacers’ season, especially as Hibbert began his downward spiral. And to think this was a guy who was looking at being out of the rotation after the team signed Andrew Bynum.
The only weak point in tonight’s game was Evan Turner, who still feels like the odd man out in the second unit. He can create offense, but it’s mainly iso ball with him taking a tough mid-range jumper. He had 4 points on 2-6 shooting, which isn’t terrible, but his defense was pretty bad as he missed his assignment several times and can’t seem to ever go under a screen.
The team chemistry and camaraderie was improved too. We saw Hibbert and Stephenson chatting by the tunnel during the game instead of calling each other “selfish”, and witnessed guys on the bench — even those not getting minutes — being vocal and supportive of each other. There were high fives after most plays and fallen teammates were quickly helped up. The contrast in body language has been stark.
Nonetheless, despite the general strong effort coach Vogel was quick to point out that they are by no means satisfied. They’ve had too many lapses over the last few months to be overly excited by one good game and must build on any momentum they can get. The Wizards have had a couple of sub-par games and I’m sure they will respond by making adjustments in game 4. How the Pacers react to those adjustments will be an excellent litmus test where this team is at, and whether Miami will have a free pass to the Finals as everyone has been assuming.
Game 4 is in DC at 8pm Sunday.