Well, it didn’t take long before this optimistic tweet after game 1 came back to haunt me.
How quick we jump to conclusions.
After coming back from a 19-point deficit to beat the Wizards 95-92, the Indiana Pacers have moved within a single victory of returning to the Eastern Conference Finals, and they will get three chances, with two at home, to get it done. Who could have seen this coming when were down 2-3 against Atlanta in the first round?
And it wouldn’t have been possible with the all-round brilliance of Paul George, who played 46 minutes (including all of the second half), scored a career playoff high 39 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and hit a franchise record-tying 7 three pointers, becoming the first NBA player ever to crack those numbers in a single playoff game. Oh, and he chased Bradley Beal around all night, coming up with a crucial defensive rebound at the end of the game and forcing the final turnover to ice it.
PG24 wasn’t the only guy who ramped up his game either. Roy Hibbert, after putting up just 2 points and zero boards in the first half, exploded in the second after feuding with a courtside heckler and finished with 17 points and 9 rebounds (including 5 offensive) and 2 blocks. George Hill continued to outplay John Wall, at least on the stat sheet, with 15 and 4 on 50% shooting compared to 14, 7 and 5 turnovers on 36%.
All of this on a night when the Pacers bench were outscored 32-2. Yikes.
We knew the Wizards were going to come out with a lot of energy after getting kept to a franchise low 63 points last game, and I thought the Pacers did an excellent job of matching them as they finished the first quarter up 27-26, with the G2 connection of Hill and George leading the way.
We also knew the Wizards would probably make a run in the second quarter, but I certainly didn’t foresee the lead swelling to 17 points at halftime on the back on some really awful turnovers and poor offensive execution. At halftime, Charles Barkley said the Pacers looked like they were “mailing it in” because they already got the win they needed last game.
Well somebody forgot to tell the Pacers that because they came out of the third quarter on a mission. They didn’t overwhelm the Wizards with energy or a huge run — rather, it was a steady chip-away effort; lots of composed plays at both ends of the court, hustle and a little bit of luck. By the end of the third quarter they were down just a point, 72-71.
The Pacers would then tie the game at 74 apiece on a Paul George and-one, but then the Wizards would go on a 9-0 run to appear to wrap the game up with 7 minutes to go. Pretty much all the damage was done with the geriatric trio of Andre Miller, Drew Gooden and former Pacer Al Harrington, who saw little playing time earlier in the series but had 11 tonight.
But again, the Pacers came storming back. Paul George hit a couple of big threes (one was a potential four-point play, but he missed the free throw). Roy Hibbert got involved offensively, hitting two big baskets, the second of which helped the Pacers go up 94-91 with a minute remaining.
The Wizards had plenty of time left, but again they opted to go for the three. First John Wall was left wide open on the right wing, but gave up the shot, perhaps mindful of the criticism from game 2 when he missed a few rushed ones that cost them the game. Instead he got the ball to Bradley Beal, who was pretty much open as well but missed badly off the side of the rim to give the Pacers possession.
George Hill and Lance Stephenson would throw the ball away and Hill would go 1-2 from the line to give the Wizards multiple opportunities to get back into it, but Trevor Ariza misplaced an inbounds pass off the fingertips of Bradley Beal, allowing a scrambling Paul George to come up with the ball before Wall knocked it out of bounds. And that was the game.
The Pacers kept the Wizards to zero field goals in the final 4:38 and just one field goal in the last 7:49, allowing them to escape with the DC sweep despite 18 turnovers, missing 10 free throws (19-29) and getting outscored 18-2 on fast break points.
They were lucky to get away with some poor execution down the stretch, but allow me to point out that both those late-game turnovers came out of unselfishness. George Hill threw the ball out of bounds because he passed up an open shot to get the ball to Stephenson in the corner, but Stephenson was rushing towards the basket to get the offensive rebound. Stephenson later came up with the defensive rebound at the other end, but, sensing that the intentional foul was coming, tried to get the ball to Paul George, instead giving it straight to Beal, who was fouled on the layup attempt (he was fortunate it didn’t turn into an and-one). They can live with those mistakes because they were trying to be unselfish, and most importantly, because they won anyway.
Being up 3-1 with game 5 coming at home is fantastic, but the Pacers know they need to end the series before they can get some much-needed rest. The talk after the game suggests that the Pacers are not looking ahead to the next round, with everyone interviewed noting the importance of matching the energy of the desperate Wizards the next game and closing it out. There was an air of confidence in their statements, but at the same time they’ve been through too much the last couple of months and know it doesn’t take much for everything to come crumbling down again.