- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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WASHINGTON -- Frank Vogel tried to give Paul George an out. A few of them, actually. Sensing the assignment of chasing Washington Wizards sharpshooter Bradley Beal around screens all night might wear down George, the Indiana Pacers coach offered before Game 4 Sunday to lighten the load and switch his perimeter defensive catalyst onto less aggressive players for stretches. George flat-out refused. Then, after watching George play 22 of 24 minutes in the first half and do everything he could to help settle his team amid a raucous environment on the road, Vogel reminded himself to make sure he built in a couple of breathers for his All-Star in the second half.
George wanted no part of that plan either.
And when the Wizards opened the second half by quickly extending their lead to a seemingly insurmountable 19 points against an Indiana team with a routinely anemic offense, George was just warming up for his most aggressive act of denial.
"We all looked at one another, and we really didn't think this game was over with," George said. "We didn't think we were going to lose this game. There was so much time left. Even when [Washington] went on a run, it felt like it wasn't blows to put us away."
Not only did George have the legs to mount the comeback, he also had the stamina and the relentless mentality to sustain it. By the time the remarkable rally ended, George had amassed more than 46 minutes, a career-high 39 points, 12 rebounds, seven 3-pointers and two steals in leading the Pacers to a 95-92 victory that gave them a commanding 3-1 series lead.
The only challenge tougher than pulling George out Sunday's game might be trying to find a more impressive two-way performance from any other player this postseason. Not only did George have to contain Washington's most dangerous offensive threat in Beal, he also was tasked with carrying the offensive load for his team down the stretch after Indiana managed just 11 points in the second quarter.
George actually outscored the Wizards' entire starting five in the second half, when he had 28 of his 39 while Trevor Ariza, John Wall, Marcin Gortat, Nene and Beal combined for just 24 points. The heavy lifting for George also included pulling his team through a performance in which the Pacers committed 20 turnovers, missed 10 free throws and got just two points from their bench.
The Wizards went to a small unit to build their biggest lead. And the Pacers countered by relying on their small forward to come up with the biggest playoff effort of his career to bring them back. George is the first player in NBA history to reach totals of 39 points, 12 rebounds and seven 3-pointers in a game.
"Credit the Wizards for playing a heck of a basketball game ... for making some solid adjustments that really impacted the game," Vogel said, slightly shaking his head in disbelief. "Sometimes, you can get outdone by a special performance. And what Paul George did tonight was special, there's no way else to put it. He's one of the best, probably the best wing defender in the game. I'm very proud of that kid."
Vogel and his team are never short on pride.
It's a stubborn virtue that got them through months of internal conflict, embarrassing home losses and a post All-Star break malaise that saw them stumble into the playoffs on the brink of an historic collapse. But when Indiana faced its largest deficit and deepest stretch of adversity Sunday, Vogel reverted to that pride and relied on the five players who provided the foundation these past two tumultuous years.
David West responded with a career-high eight assists along with 14 points. Roy Hibbert, who went scoreless and without a rebound in a Game 1 loss to Washington, scored in double-figures for the third straight game to finish with 17 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. George Hill contributed 15 points and helped the Pacers maintain their vice grip on John Wall. And Lance Stephenson did just enough good things (nine rebounds, eight points and six assists) to overcome the bad (six turnovers). But it was close, especially after some of his passing blunders and decisions late in the game.
Since falling into a 3-2 series hole in the first round against Atlanta, Indiana has won five of its past six playoff games. And after all of the criticism and scrutiny of their recent struggles, the East's top-seeded team is now one victory from advancing to the conference finals for the second straight season.
"All I can say is we are strong," Stephenson said. "We stuck together. We kept everybody level-headed, and told everybody to just worry about what is going on in the locker room. Do not let off-the-court stuff bother you, and we came up big."
No one was bigger than George, whose comments before the game foreshadowed his performance.
After Indiana's shootaround Sunday morning, George said he had plenty of respect for the Wizards and how they've jelled to make a surprising run to the second round of the playoffs. He also said Washington reminded him a lot of his Pacers teams that began their ascension three years ago.
George then described what he feels is the biggest difference between the Wizards and Pacers right now, particularly with the maturation process of Beal and Wall in the playoffs. "I know me and John were in the same  draft class, but I know what to expect around this time [of the year]," said George, who has made the playoffs all four seasons he's been in the league. "He's going to know now that it's another level. He got past the first round, but it's another level. It's just [a matter] those guys gaining some experience."
A few minutes later before the Wizards held their shootaround, Wall talked about how he's trying to maintain perspective amid his struggles during the most meaningful games of his young career.
"This is the most fun I've had being in the NBA, honestly," Wall said of trying to keep a positive attitude during his first postseason appearance. "Usually, I'd be at home on vacation with my family or something. I'm not really thinking about [the pressure]. It's fun for my first time, because most people get swept or are done in the first round. We had an opportunity to do great and beat a great team in the Chicago Bulls, and now we have an opportunity to still make this a heck of a series."
The odds are now stacked against the Wizards.
And George isn't taking no for an answer.
"Usually, coach takes me out to get a breather but I knew every horn that sounded wasn't for somebody to come get me," George said as the Pacers return home with a chance to close out the series in Game 5 on Tuesday. "I already had it in my head that I was pretty much going to go the whole distance."
No one in the nation's capital had the authority or ability to stop him.
8dEthan Sherwood Strauss