- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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WASHINGTON -- The symptoms are eerily familiar.
It was only a couple days ago when one group of players and coaches was struggling to explain itself after a demoralizing home loss, facing questions about its depleted confidence and desperately trying to salvage any sliver of remaining confidence from its slumping All-Star.
Back then, those players were the Indiana Pacers who were coming off their third home loss in the playoffs, having yet again fallen into another series deficit right from the start and at a loss trying to figure out how 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert had essentially vanished.
Since then, the Pacers have taken two major steps toward finding themselves again, and, in the process, they've taken a 2-1 series lead against the Washington Wizards after a historic defensive performance in Friday's 85-63 victory that left the teams in opposite roles.
Now, it's the Pacers who watched the final seconds of a game tick down as boos from a disappointed home crowd cascaded on the court. It's now the Wizards, darlings of the first round after destroying the Chicago Bulls in five games, battling their first dose of adversity and doubt this postseason after setting a franchise record for fewest points in a game.
And now, it's Washington's All-Star point guard, John Wall, struggling to regain his footing while sinking in the postseason quicksand on the heels of his second consecutive poor performance leading to a loss.
"We had great regular-season success by being a dominant defensive team," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel, whose team is playing with a series lead for the first time this postseason.
"That's sort of what our identity is. As you get further and further into the playoffs, it becomes tougher, and your margin for error is more slim. I just don't think there's going to be any kind of letdown. It's a good win, but we're in no way satisfied. We've got to keep coming back for more in Game 4 [Sunday]."
This was Vogel being three things he hasn't been afforded much of an opportunity to be in recent months: relaxed, candid and confident. There also haven't been many moments during that span when the Pacers have put together consecutive promising games to resemble the team that jumped out to the league's best record and were on the verge of a dominant season before the All-Star break.
Since stumbling through a seven-game series win against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round and losing Game 1 at home to the Wizards on Monday, the Pacers seem to be in the process of regrouping. They've won four of their past five playoff games since falling behind 3-2 against the Hawks.
And now, they appear to be gaining control of this series against the upstart Wizards. That process started Wednesday with recommitting to establishing Hibbert offensively, in a game in which he had a season-high 28 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in an 86-82 victory to even the series.
Before Friday's game, likely in an attempt to temper some of the expectations with Hibbert, Vogel said he anticipated his center's production in Game 3 falling somewhere between his dominance in Game 2 and the dour effort in the series opener, in which he went scoreless and without a rebound.
True to form, Hibbert split the difference and finished with 14 points, five rebounds and three blocks. There weren't many satisfying offensive moments throughout Friday's game, but the most pivotal stretch from the Pacers came in the third quarter, when they fed the ball to Hibbert for six shot attempts and outscored the Wizards 26-12 to gradually pull away.
If Game 2 was about fixing Hibbert, then the next phase of Indiana's recovery project was focused on reestablishing its defensive identity. The Wizards missed plenty of open looks and had some uncharacteristic ballhandling blunders during stretches of the game, so the Pacers acknowledged that some of the Wizards' problems were a result of Washington's own doing.
But Vogel even admitted he was so emotionally wound from Friday's result that he couldn't remember a time he was more pleased with the figures on the postgame stat sheet. The 63 points were the fewest ever by an Indiana opponent in the playoffs, and the Wizards were also limited to 32.9 percent shooting overall and 25 percent from 3-point range. Indiana also scored 21 points off 18 Washington turnovers.
The aesthetic value of Friday's game, of course, depended on the vantage point.
"If you're a guy that loves defense, we're your team," said Pacers forward Paul George, who had three of Indiana's nine steals and also finished with 23 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 block.
"That was probably the ugliest game of the postseason thus far, but this is our style of basketball. Every now and then, this team is fortunate enough to get hot offensively, but what we do is play defense."
Wizards coach Randy Wittman couldn't move quickly enough to distance himself from Game 3.
"This was really a clunker for us -- there is no question about it," Wittman said. "It was our first one in what, eight games that we've played in the playoffs. We've got to let it go."
That was the same advice Wittman offered Wall after a game in which his 15 points and six assists were overshadowed by seven turnovers and his inability to set any sort of comfortable pace for the offense. Wittman said Wall has been too hesitant to attack the past two games and needs to get back to being aggressive. Wall came into Friday having placed much of the blame on himself for the Game 2 loss after he shot 2-of-13 from the field and committed a key turnover on one of Washington's final possessions.
"You never win a game in that situation," Wall said Friday of Washington's turnovers. "They came here and won one. We have to be focused and know it's a series now and try to take them on Sunday."
Vogel was in such good spirits again that he wished reporters good luck in meeting their writing deadlines after Friday's game. It wasn't too long ago when that same media coverage of his team's demise was overwhelming, with the scrutiny seemingly suffocating.
George wants nothing more than for the Pacers to keep taking steps to distance themselves from those days and continue to stride toward what many expected to be a repeat of last postseason's matchup with the Miami Heat in the conference finals. But prosperity is still something the Pacers must prove they can handle.
The Pacers are well aware the numbers are now finally on their side again. Teams that win Game 3 of a series that had been tied at one advance to win the series 75 percent of the time.
"We've struggled along the way, but I honestly feel we're getting back to it -- just blocking out everything," George said. "Gradually, we're taking baby steps, building habits. That's all you can ask."
There's been a role reversal in this series, and the shifts tend to happen quickly in the playoffs.
The Pacers are gradually regaining their footing after a sluggish postseason start.
And the Wizards, who were gliding just days ago, have lost a bit of traction.
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann