Pacers Grind Out Convincing Win

by Wheat Hotchkiss | @Wheat_Hotchkiss

May 9, 2014 | 12:25 a.m.

WASHINGTON – If you’re looking for a metaphor for the Pacers’ 85-63 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, look no further than what transpired at the 3:41 mark of the third quarter.

The ball was in the hands of Pacers guard Lance Stephenson, dangling just a few inches off the Verizon Center hardwood, when Stephenson suddenly swung his arms up and lofted the ball to the left side of the rim.

All-Star forward Paul George soared through the air, caught the ball with two hands, and cocked it back for a dunk, seemingly destined for a surefire SportsCenter Top 10 moment.

The highlight moment didn’t happen, as George’s attempt clanged loudly off the back iron, but the end result was just as effective. Wizards guard John Wall bumped George in mid-air, and the Pacers’ leading scorer calmly drained both free throws to push Indiana’s lead to 12.

It was that kind of night for the Blue-and-Gold. A night devoid of highlight-reel plays, but full of all kinds of right results.

The Pacers’ defense set a franchise playoff record, holding the Wizards to just 63 points on the night on 33 percent shooting. After both teams struggled to score in the first half, Indiana found its rhythm in the second and somehow managed to tighten the clamps on the other end, limiting Washington to just 30 points in the final 24 minutes.

Some may call it an ugly win, but it was also a resounding one.

“We don’t worry about that, man,” Pacers forward David West said about playing ugly. “We saw the way the game was going…We were like, man, we’re just going to keep grinding, grinding, grinding.”

Added Pacers guard Lance Stephenson: “When the game’s ugly, we just try to stay poised and don’t get frustrated, stay together.”

Friday’s result started and ended on the defensive end. Wizards guard Bradley Beal, who entered Game 3 averaging over 20 points per game in the postseason, made just 6-of-19 shots. Nene, the Wizards’ best post scorer, went 3-for-14. Indiana forced Washington into 18 turnovers, including seven by All-Star point guard John Wall.

The defense only got better as the night went on. The Wizards didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in the first half, but they did accumulate eight offensive rebounds (five of them by Trevor Ariza). In the second half, the Pacers shored up that deficiency, holding Washington to just two second chances after the break.

“We just strapped down, just wanted to limit them to one shot,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. “We knew that they were going to Beal and John Wall for the most part, and a little bit of Nene. We just wanted to make an emphasis on that and make everything tough for those guys.”

Speaking of Hibbert, he had his second straight strong showing. The All-Star center hit 6-of-9 shots and finished with 14 points, fittingly the exact median between his scoreless showing Game 1 and 28-point outburst in Game 2.

After being a non-factor for much of the playoffs, Hibbert hurt the Wizards enough to earn a chorus of boos from the Verizon Center faithful when he checked back into the game midway through the fourth quarter. Being booed in your hometown has likely never felt so sweet.

Both Stephenson and West admitted that when Hibbert has got it going offensively, he’s more engaged on the defensive end. And that was no doubt a big factor in tonight’s record-setting stinginess.

“When you get Roy going, it’s so easy because he starts playing great defense, we start keying off of the defensive end, and getting easy points in transition,” Stephenson said.

West posited that when Hibbert is locked in, it has a trickle-down effect for the rest of the team:

“When he’s anchoring us and – more than anything, he’s engaged, our voices are active, and we’re not just depending on him to hit shots and be out there by himself at the rim. I think guys’ hands and everything are a little bit more lively when we know he’s behind us and able to see us on the floor.”

Indeed, George Hill and Paul George each had three steals. Hibbert had three blocks, and the Pacers were seemingly always denying a passing lane or contesting a shot, never allowing Washington any room to breathe.

But while the Pacers’ defensive production will dominate the storylines, they were also productive on the offensive end, particularly in the second half, when they “exploded” (at least that’s what you’d call it in a game like this) for 51 points.

The four starters not named Hibbert combined for 18 assists, feeding the Big Dog and each other. They only had 10 turnovers on the night, their second straight game taking care of the basketball.

“In the playoffs, you can only win games by everyone contributing and playing for each other,” Hill said. “We said that each guy has got to not look to score for (themselves), but look to try to set up other guys and it’ll make the game a lot easier.”

George led the way with 23 points, getting to the foul line 10 times. Hibbert was efficient, while West and Luis Scola also each reached double figures.

But after the game, West singled out Stephenson’s play as particularly key to the Pacers’ success on both ends. That may seem curious since Stephenson managed just nine points on 4-for-13 shooting (he’s now just 11-for-38 in the series) and didn’t manage a steal or block.

Still, he did grab seven rebounds, dish out five assists, and do all the little things the Pacers needed to control the game. Let West explain:

“I thought Lance had a tremendous game. Lance probably played the best game I’ve seen him play since I’ve been here. He was under control and defensively, he was engaged and he was able to sniff out some of their plays at key moments. He did things on the offensive end that won’t show up on the stat sheet, but really, really helped us and really gave us some space there in the third.”

With Friday’s win, the Pacers have taken back home court advantage in the best-of-seven series. Sunday’s Game 4 is suddenly a “gravy game” more than a must-win, and for perhaps the first time this postseason, Indiana looks like a worthy championship contender.

It may not have been sexy, but it sure was convincing.

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The Pacers host the Wizards in Game 5 of the Eastern Conf. Semifinals on May 13