The Pacers stormed back from a 19-point second-half deficit to edge Washington, 95-92, Sunday in Game 4 at the Verizon Center and take a 3-1 lead in this Eastern Conference Semifinal series. Indiana can close out the series in Game 5 on Tuesday at Bankers Life Field House. Only 3.7 percent of teams that have gone down 3-1 have come back to win best-of-seven series.
• Paul George steals the show. The SI.com NBA Playoff Roundtable posed an interesting question last week: “Most underrated performance by a player this postseason?” Six writers participated, and there were no repeat answers. I chose Pacers small forward Paul George. It may have seemed odd that a player who, in some quarters, was considered one of the top three players in the league could deliver an underrated performance.
If a player of George’s caliber put up big numbers in the postseason, surely we’d all make due note of it. But a series of extenuating circumstances – namely, Indiana’s downward spiral, reports of locker room discord, Roy Hibbert’s mystifying funk – diverted attention from George. At the time of the roundtable question, through eight postseason games, George had averaged 23.1 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Those are good numbers! Eventually, it seemed, George would do something to capture the nation’s attention.
On Sunday night at the Verizon Center, George exploded for a playoff-career-high 39 points on 12-of-20 shooting and 7-of-10 from three-point range, and grabbed 12 rebounds, in 46 minutes. His sterling effort, coupled with solid complementary production from George Hill and Roy Hibbert – who finished with 17 points and nine rebounds – keyed an impressive victory that added more credence to the notion that Indiana, after a prolonged slump, is beginning to recapture its early-season form.
Said Pacers coach Frank Vogel: "Paul George was just special tonight. Really proud of that kid and the whole team showing that sort of resolve."
George, who scored 28 points after halftime, carved up Washington’s defense by both penetrating into the lane and stepping back for jump shots. His seven threes matched a Pacers playoff record. He was especially good in the third quarter, scoring 13 points to help Indiana slice a 17-point, halftime deficit to one heading into the fourth. In the final frame, George played the role of closer.
He drilled a three at the 5:37 mark to bring Indiana within six, then hit another around the 5-minute mark. After a Wizards timeout with less than 2:30 remaining, George knocked down four consecutive free throws to help Indiana complete a nine-point comeback and take a one-point lead. His defensive rebound after a missed free throw from Bradley Beal with seven seconds left and the Pacers leading by two was a big play in an important sequence.
Check out George’s shot chart from Game 4.
• Washington's bench surge kept Indiana at bay in the first half. Watching the Wizards score 63 points in a Game 3 loss, it was hard to shake the feeling this series would accelerate to its conclusion. Indiana suffocated Washington into a season-low scoring tally and the 4th lowest total of the shot clock era, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
In the process, the Pacers began to resemble the tough defensive juggernaut that drew so much praise in the first half of the regular season. They raced back to prevent transition buckets and forced turnovers. Paul George hounded Beal. Hibbert blocked shots.
"This was probably the ugliest game of the postseason thus far,” George said afterward. “This is our style of basketball. Every now and then this team is fortunate to get hot offensively, but what we do is play defense."
In Game 4, Indiana’s defense flexed its muscles again, but not before withstanding a huge scoring spurt from Washington’s bench.
After being outscored by Indiana in the first quarter, The Wizards created separation in the second, though their means for doing so may surprise you. Reserve guard Andre Miller and forwards Drew Gooden and Al Harrington, a group dubbed the "AARP Group," whose combined age is 104, helped Washington amass a 17-point lead. Harrington scored six consecutive points to open the frame, energizing the crowd, while Miller tallied five points and dished out an assist and Gooden banged with Indiana’s big men on the inside.
Around the 8-minute mark, Miller connected with Martell Webster on a long alley-oop dunk to put the Wizards up 11, at 38-27. The biggest highlight of the half, though, came right before the break. Gooden swatted a layup attempt from George, John Wall corralled the miss and raced the other way before wrapping the ball behind his back, switching hands in midair and flipping in a layup.
Washington's bench, which also provided key contributions in the fourth quarter, outscored Indiana's reserves 32-2.
In the end, the second quarter surge was for naught, as Indiana conjured one of its trademark, third-quarter beat downs. Speaking of which …
• Indiana's third-quarter surge. Strong play in the third quarter was a hallmark for the Pacers during the regular season. They posted a net rating of 14.6 in the third frame, tops in the league, and allowed just 92.8 points per 100 possessions. Indiana outscored the Wizards 26-12 in the third quarter of Game 3 en route to a double-digit victory.
After Washington took a 17-point lead into halftime on Sunday, it seemed fair to wonder whether the Pacers would unleash another post-halftime, game-turning fury. Indiana, true to form, turned up the heat in the third, getting key contributions from George, Hibbert and David West to pull within one.
All the positive energy Washington had built up through its bench production in the second quarter was evaporating, as Indiana recalled the third-quarter might that helped it bury so many opponents during the regular season. Hibbert came up big during a 12-0 run near the end of the period, scoring nine points. The Pacers cleaned up their offensive execution and tightened the screws on defense, and all of a sudden a game that looked like it could be a blowout at the half was a toss-up heading into the fourth quarter.
From there, George and Hibbert helped the Pacers erase a nine-point deficit and close out a crucial victory that sends them back home for Game 5 with a chance to finish off the series.