WASHINGTON (AP) — For the final 1½ months of the regular season, and the first eight games of the playoffs, the Indiana Pacers' suddenly sloppy play raised all sorts of questions.
Why did Paul George and Co. go from one of the NBA's top teams to a mediocre one?
How did coach Frank Vogel's team lose its way?
Could the Pacers right things in time?
"Sometimes teams go through tough stretches. We just went through ours toward the end of the year. But we were playing (great) basketball in the beginning of the year. Normally it's the complete opposite — going through struggles early and figuring it out," guard George Hill said. "Now we're starting to get back, and things are starting to click the right way. And we're starting to get our mojo back."
It all starts with defense, the single most important reason the Pacers own a 2-1 lead over the Washington Wizards heading into Sunday night's Game 4 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.
After allowing John Wall and the Wizards to take Game 1 with 102 points, the Pacers have won two in a row by limiting Washington to 82 in Game 2, then a franchise-record-low 63 in Game 3.
"That's what we want to be," Vogel said. "We had great regular-season success by being a dominant defensive team — limiting the 3-ball, keeping teams out of transition, limiting teams to one shot, being a dominant defensive rebounding team — and that's who our identity is."
Giving up an average of 92.3 points in the regular season, Indiana ranked second among 30 NBA teams in defense.
In Friday's 85-63 road victory, the Pacers limited the Wizards to 12 points in the third quarter and 30 in the second half. Washington made 25 percent of its 3-point attempts and 33 percent of all field-goal tries. Wall alone had seven turnovers — although from early in the third quarter, he was dealing with a scratched right eye that made it so he "could barely see," he explained Saturday.
"I wouldn't just put it all on John," said shooting guard Bradley Beal, who was hounded by George and shot 6 for 19 overall, 1 for 5 on 3s. "He's only one guy. There's four other guys out there, and there's 12 total who are able to play."
One key adjustment by the Pacers in Game 3 was working to slow Washington's quick pace by sending players back on defense instead of emphasizing offensive rebounding.
Repeatedly, George or Lance Stephenson would get down court quickly and help Hill slow Wall.
"They didn't make anything easy. They were all together on one page on the defensive end," Beal said, adding: "I didn't feel comfortable."
That's what Indiana did to Washington in November, when the Pacers won 93-73. And again in January during a 93-66 victory.
Indeed, that's how the Pacers treated most opponents at that time. They rolled to a 46-13 record — a .780 winning percentage — on March 2, setting them up to be the No. 1 seed in the East. But from there, Indiana went 10-13 the rest of the way, a .435 clip.
In the postseason, the Pacers trailed the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks 3-2 in the first round before pulling that series out in Game 7. Then came a Game 1 loss to fifth-seeded Washington.
"Maybe we weren't handling success the greatest," forward David West said.
"Maybe we were listening to what everybody was saying about us, people talking good about us," he explained. "There were times we felt we could come out and didn't necessarily have to play or execute to win. We lost some games because of that."
Game 3 against Washington was different, and West hopes Game 4 will be, too.
"We were engaged. Our team as a whole was locked into their schemes and what they were trying to do. Our aggression was at the right level," West said. "Our hands were active, our feet were active, our voices were active on defense."
Add in the recently revitalized Roy Hibbert — zero points in Game 1, but 28 in Game 2, then 14 in Game 3, along with a real presence in the paint at the defensive end — and, as Vogel put it Saturday: "It makes us feel like we're back to being us."
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