INDIANAPOLIS – At some point, this has to stop being about the Indiana Pacers, and how they’ve let down their top overall seeding eight games into the team’s 2014 playoff run. At some point, this has to be about the Washington Wizards, a squad that has now won five playoff games in six tries, one that looks sturdy enough defensively and potent enough on the other end to make some real noise against a Pacers team that was a win away from the NBA Finals last season.
Indiana once again relinquished the home-court advantage they’d worked so hard to acquire during their 56-win regular season, losing the first game of their second-round series 102-96 to the Wizards. The Wizards ran out to an early 14-point advantage in the first quarter, and Pacers coach Frank Vogel admitted following the loss that “our slow start put us behind the 8-ball tonight,” even if the Pacers eventually came back to take the lead in the second quarter. John Wall was the literal driving force for the Wizards, capitalizing on the Pacers' cold shooting touch to push the ball in transition and allow the sometimes-lacking Washington offense several chances early in the shot clock – something Wizards coach Randy Wittman was quick to credit when talking to the media afterward.
From there, the Wizards kept up the same routine that did them so well in their 4-1 first-round series win over Chicago. The floor was spread with big men Nene and Marcin Gortat diving and cutting and creating havoc with both post-ups and triple-threat approaches. The pair combined for 27 points and 21 rebounds, alongside five blocks, and Vogel maintained following the game that the two straight-up “manhandled” the Pacers frontline. The Pacers managed just 20 points in the paint during their Game 1 loss, a season low some 90 games into their 2013-14 campaign.
David West was his usual beastly self throughout the game, managing 15 points and 12 rebounds, but Roy Hibbert turned in a performance that was borderline embarrassing, so much so that his 17 minutes seemed to feel like an eternity to those who were watching the All-Star center struggle from afar. Though at times his defensive presence was felt by Washington penetrators, Hibbert racked up more fouls (five) than he did combined points and rebounds (that would be nil). Bigger pairings with West, Luis Scola and even Ian Mahinmi couldn’t solve Indiana’s problems on either end of the court, and mini first-round hero Chris Copeland didn’t check in until there was a minute left in the contest, registering a made 3-pointer the first time he touched the ball.
Vogel was understandably far from pleased following the game. “I’m always surprised when our guys don’t play well,” looking over his team’s 53-36 disadvantage on the glass. “We’ve got to rebound better than we did on both ends of the court.”
The beleaguered Pacers coach also had to answer to a frustrated Lance Stephenson, who made a show of things after Vogel removed him with a minute to go in the third quarter with the Pacers down six. An angry Stephenson glared at his coach and dramatically covered himself with a towel before being stared down by Pacers owner Herb Simon and Pacers president Larry Bird.
“I did notice his reaction,” Vogel gritted in response to a question about Stephenson’s gesticulations. “You can’t play everyone 48 minutes. You’ve got to trust your bench.”
One has to trust the Wizards, at this point. Trevor Ariza’s 6-for-6 shooting night from beyond the arc probably won’t sustain throughout the series, but we’re at a point where going under screens set for the Wizards swingman means certain death for opposing teams. Youngster Bradley Beal may have airballed a free throw in the third quarter, but he also scored a team-high 25 points along with seven boards and seven assists, piling up five steals along the way.
Wall didn’t shoot especially well, missing 10 of 14 from the floor, but he penetrated and caused chaos. And out of nowhere, former 10-day contract signee Drew Gooden contributed a double-double off the bench, frustrating the Pacers with seven offensive rebounds, finishing his night with 12 points and 13 boards in exactly the same amount of minutes that Roy Hibbert played. "We need," Pacers swingman Paul George understated after the game, "our big fella to rebound the ball for us."
Immediately following Washington’s win, Hawk point guard Jeff Teague tweeted this out:
… and he wouldn’t be wrong, in that summation. What’s worth pointing out, though, is the Wizards utilized this same blueprint of sorts against Chicago, and dropped only one (very close) game in five tries. Meanwhile, the Pacers continue to struggle against perimeter shooting, and the team is still failing in its attempts to make Hibbert a worthwhile bit player, biding his time until the big bad Miami Heat can come to Indianapolis.
That Indiana-Miami matchup is far from assured, and though the Pacers still have much to improve upon as they look to even their series, this 1-0 Washington lead says quite a bit about Washington. Too much for us to ignore. The Indiana Pacers might be disappointing themselves, staring down yet another 0-1 deficit and the loss of home-court advantage yet again, but this is Washington’s series at this point.
It’s time we start treating the Wizards with the respect they’ve earned.
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