The onslaught reached force in the third quarter, when — for the first time — this series felt like the mismatch that most experts had predicted. The Pacers did jump out on the Magic early as well in game two last night, busing out the gates to quickly build a 20-10 lead, but like in Game One, that early scoring flurry was soon erased, and Indiana once again looked like a team that was going to allow Orlando to dictate the tempo.
Way more troubling than that initial recovery, however, was the fact that their opponent, led by the vertically challenged Glen Davis, was punishing the Pacers front court. It became Big Baby’s game; Indiana was just along for the ride.
In the NBA, much is made about energy levels, aggressiveness and imposing physicality. Sometimes this is just cliched rubbish spun by hack writers who spent more of the game feverishly writing their post-game report pre-buzzer than truly paying attention. After all, it is really easy to just throw out overarching generalities (“TMac was never great … he couldn’t make it to the second round”) and be accurate without being correct.
But in this case, it’s the only way to explain what actually happened. The Magic, in the second quarter, wanted it more.
After falling down early, the Magic simply decided to be tougher than the Pacers. It led to them being able to do whatever they wanted. Jameer Nelson dribbled around freely, Davis was the largest presence on the court. Even NBA nobodies Chris Duhon and Earl Clark were making Indiana’s look like the ones who are fringe pros at best. And it wasn’t even so much that Orlando was running any great sets or converting buckets at an impressive rate. But they were able to get enough second-chance points to supersede the fact that their offensive execution was subpar. It was clear why: the Pacers were intimidated and became indecisive, passive and reactionary. Every Pacer fan watching must have been thinking the same thing: “Indiana isn’t making the second round.” It was that one-sided from an aggression standpoint.
Then a funny thing happened in the locker room.
The Pacers came out in the third quarter and completely flipped the script. David West made the decision that the team would no longer get pushed around. He became the catalyst for aggression, doing his best Bruce Banner impression starting right after half time (and continuing through the 23 and a half minutes he would play in the second half).
Indiana started to take control.
Then Tyler Hansbrough checked in. And he put on a clinic.
No, he didn’t score much or even grab any rebounds. But he used a Tazmanian-devil-with-rabies-intensity to ensure that whatever chance the Magic had of even scoring — let along getting back in the game — would end soon. As Tyler blitzed ball-handler, recovered to find his man and furiously rotated with speed and precision that I can’t ever recall seeing, a 2-point half-time deficit became a 15-point lead. The Pacers went on a 21-3 run that may have been even more one-sided than those numbers suggest. The Magic offense came to a halt. And there is very little we can look to aside from two power forwards deciding that their team was no longer going to get pushed around.
The effect spread throughout the roster. George Hill didn’t miss a shot in the quarter, scoring 12 of his 18 in the third. Even Danny Granger, who was wretched shooting-wise in the period and the game, got swept up in the crescendo, netting a few buckets, which was enough to put him in cocky head-nod mode. The whole team played with an exuberance and passion of, well, a team that just realized they aren’t going to fall down 0-2 at home to a team full of jumpshooters.
The Magic never recovered.
All this reminded me of something completely unrelated.
I’ve been playing a lot of chess lately. I’m not particularly good, but I’m competent and can win a little more than half the time against similarly middling players. The more I’ve played in recent months, the more it has become apparent that aggressiveness is a much larger factor of the game than I have ever realized. While games can go on for a while, there really aren’t that many moves in the average game (that I play anyway). Most game go around 30 to 35 moves before one side’s king is trapped. That is quite a few back-and-forths, but really not that many.
And I’ve learned that while the tactical strategy is indeed important (out-witting the other player by stealing their attacking pieces) and execution is paramount (basically, not allowing yourself to get trapped and simply not making blunders), there is another realm that usually dictates the tone of the game: who controls the board.
Generally, one player is forcing the other to react to his moves rather than mount any sort of planned attack. One player is back on their heels. One player is wasting moves retreating while the other is slowly advancing, spreading his pieces and setting himself up to later attack in various ways that keep the more reactive player off balance for the rest of the game. Keep the opponent uncomfortable, and the strategic and execution-based parts of the game become that much easier.
That’s what we saw last night, at different times, from both teams.
For the Magic, this aggression (along with some three-pointers) is really the only way they can beat a more talented opponent. They cannot just run their normal offense and rely on pick-and-rolls and expect to out-score an Indiana team that is just has more skilled players on both ends of the floor. But they have plenty of pride and don’t care about talent. They’re just going to impose themselves on this series regardless. This second quarter will not be the last time they try to bully the Pacers into surrender.
Ultimately, it’s a good fight for this Pacers team to be in. Tim Donahue wrote a nice piece for TrueHoop discussing how Indiana is going through some on-the-job playoff basketball training as we speak. They don’t even know their full identify yet and now they’re trying to both find that while they figure out how to play playoff basketball. As we saw in the second and third quarters last night, this is not the regular season. Haymakers are being exchanged. The Pacers took one on the chin in game one and went down. In game two, they got chin-checked again. But they were able to shake it off and come back strong in the third.
Nobody likes to catch a left cross to the jaw.
But doing so can teach you that fighting back is the only solution.