The NBA’s Greatest First Round Ever has ended, which is a bit of a shame, but the idea that half the participants in the Greatest First Round Ever are still active should keep you keen on taking in the second round of the 2014 NBA playoffs. This is where the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie prepare you for what you’re about to see.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
Do the Pacers look selfish?
Do the Wizards look, I dunno, dominant?
Neither tag seems to fit at this point, but you wouldn’t be wrong in expecting as much from either side as they set to take on each other in a second-round matchup few could have expected earlier in the season. Indiana had long ago mapped out its route to the third round of the Eastern Conference bracket, piling high and working hard in attempts to secure home-court advantage over the defending champion Miami Heat.
The opponents along the way were not supposed to be of any consequence. The problem here is that a 38-win Atlanta Hawks team took the Pacers to seven games in the opening round. And the second-round opponent, these formidable Washington Wizards, made mincemeat of the Pacers in the regular season’s last month, inspiring a frustrated Roy Hibbert to call out his teammates for being “selfish,” mainly for ignoring the sort of smash-ball style that had served Indiana so well over the season’s first half.
The Pacers are aware of this. They know Washington will be working with a healthy Nene and a center in Marcin Gortat who is playing through his all-around prime. It’s why Pacers star Paul George told media that Hibbert’s second-round pairing with the Wizards would be “his series.” It’s why the Pacers seem strangely confident in spite of losing three of their initial five games against a 38-win team from Atlanta, after months of working as championship contenders.
It’s also why the Pacers will take this series. Washington has talent, there is to be no doubt, but Indiana thrives on orthodoxy.
Nene will not present the sort of matchup issues that Joakim Noah had to deal with in Washington’s dominant turn over Chicago in the first round. Hibbert’s length and bulk and assigned inattention to passing lanes and floating guards won’t allow Nene to shoot his way into double-figure points. Trevor Ariza will be hounded by George, Bradley Beal will have no idea what to do with Lance Stephenson breaking down wall after wall in his attempts to chase down the Wizards’ second-year shooter, and Gortat won’t enjoy losing all the whistles against the highly regarded David West.
That doesn’t mean the Pacers should bank on a one-sided series. Far from it.
The Pacers could win this in five, or even four, but these are going to be close games throughout. Both Indiana and Washington can rely on the first- and third-game bump from their respective home crowds, but that sort of momentum should dissipate by the second quarter. Nobody is blowing out anyone in this series unless the shots fall badly short, or unless one side decides to give up. Otherwise, you’ll have a pitched street battle between two teams that love to defend, and dig working from the inside-out in spite of All-Star talent on the “out” side of things.
There will be cutting and movement in transition, but there will also be 13-point quarters. There will be heaps of contested block/charge calls, and there will be upturned palms once some flighty guard decides to look the other way when it comes to making a sound entry pass. It will be ugly, in relative terms, and neither team will come off as expected Heat-downers following the end of the series.
It will be a close, competitive and entertaining series, though. These two teams have battled too hard and for too long to contribute anything besides that.
Prepare for the slugfest, though. Your patience will be tested.
Prediction: Pacers in 5.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
Which team's primary playmakers can get loose first and most often?
The Wizards backcourt was sensational in their first-round victory over the Chicago Bulls, with John Wall and Bradley Beal combining to average just under 39 points per game in the five-game series. Wall overcame spotty shooting (36.4 percent from the field, 27.3 percent from 3-point land) by pressing the action and getting to the foul line (9.2 attempts per game). Beal popped for a team-high 19.8 points per game on blistering 45.5 percent shooting from deep; the 20-year-old proved capable of generating offense on his own, too, with 45.5 percent of his makes coming without a direct assist, up from 36.4 percent during the regular season.
Time and again, they complemented one another so well -- Wall probing with the dribble and changing pace off screens to tilt Chicago's defense and create seams in the coverage before using his fantastic court vision to find shooters, Beal punishing the Bulls for attention paid elsewhere with pure jumpers and an ever-expanding off-the-bounce game. They'll need to replicate that production against a Pacers team that successfully limited them during the season.
Wall, who shot 43.3 percent from the floor and 35.1 percent from 3-point range this season, stumbled to marks of 34 percent and 20 percent, respectively, against Indy in three meetings this year, while also getting to the free-throw line about half as often as he did against other competition. Beal's struggles were even more pronounced, as the 41.9 percent shooter managed barely to hit one-fourth of his tries from the floor in two games against the Pacers while only attempting seven 3-pointers. In reviewing the tape of their performances, it's clear both Wall (guarded primarily by George Hill) and Beal (checked mostly by Lance Stephenson) struggled because of not only to the long arms and quickness of their individual opponents, but also to the ever-present length of the secondary defenders -- specifically centers Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi, playing soft on pick-and-rolls -- that they faced when attacking Indiana's league-best unit.
Everyone who's been watching knows the Pacers entering Round 2 aren't the Pacers that blitzed the league early in the season, and it's worth noting that Indy's two blowout wins over Washington came during the Pacers' rampaging start. But while the Atlanta Hawks came within one game of toppling the top-seeded Pacers by creating matchup problems that rendered Indiana's base defense nearly useless, Washington's more conventional two-big attack figures to afford the Pacers more chances to play within their comfort zone defensively, which has -- for the most part -- meant bad news for the Wizards offense, including their backcourt stars. (One big key: whether Nene, who missed two Pacers games this season, can keep knocking down more than half his midrange jumpers, as he did against the Bulls, to pull the Pacer bigs away from the basket and create more driving/cutting lanes.)
The Wiz did take one game off the Pacers this season, though. That 13-point win came in late March, deep in the doldrums of the Pacers' post-All-Star swoon, and saw Washington succeed in the No. 1 task facing them in the semifinals: stopping Paul George, who is fresh off averaging just under 24 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three combined blocks/steals per game on 46/40/83 shooting splits to basically carry the limping Pacers past Atlanta.
George shot just 6 for 22 in that regular-season loss to the Wizards. Most of the dampening was done by Washington perimeter ace Trevor Ariza, who held George to just 3-for-15 shooting on plays on which he served as the primary defender, according to a video review. Ariza had some help, too -- as Umair Khan of Bullets Forever notes, Ariza's ability to funnel George into interior help was pivotal, as no fewer than a half-dozen of George's attempts in that game were materially altered, if not snuffed out all together, by Marcin Gortat in the middle.
George shot just 31.3 percent with the long-armed and quick Ariza on the floor in the teams' three meetings this year, compared to 42.9 percent (a tick above his season average) when Ariza sat. Moreover, all six of his turnovers against Washington came with Ariza on the court, and turnovers -- especially the live-ball cough-ups that allow speed demons like Wall to light out in transition -- are an absolute killer for an Indiana team that often struggles to generate consistent and efficient offense. The Pacers allowed 21 points off turnovers in that late-March loss; they gave up 23 total in their two victories.
Much will be made of the Pacers' late-season and opening-round struggles (rightly so) and there'll be plenty of focus on whether Hibbert's Game 7 signaled a resurgence or was merely the last flicker of relevance for a player who has all but fallen apart over the past three months. But in a series featuring two top-flight defenses with plenty of time to prepare for and load up against their opposition, whichever team can figure out how to get their top shot creators off earliest and most often will figure to have the edge in advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.
Prediction: Pacers in 7.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, X-factors and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
Was it fun to watch the Pacers struggle to dispatch the Hawks? Maybe, for a few games there, especially if you’re the sort of person who appreciates cringe humor. The sight of a onetime contender — still the top team in their conference during the regular season! — floundering against an unimposing opponent held some bizarre fascination. A few simple wrinkles, like a center who shoots from outside and a pretty good point guard, seemed to confound Indiana to no end. The Hawks looked just as confused as everyone else.
Yet even this goofy turn of events could only provide so much viewing pleasure. Eventually, it was all just a bit sad. And when the Pacers finally broke through and took control against the Hawks, it wasn’t so much a moment of discovery as a sign they’d caught up with the rest of us in realizing that the NBA postseason is pretty darn important.
This series should ask more of the Pacers while also allowing them to play their preferred style, if only because the Wizards employ more traditional big men in Nene and Marcin Gortat. After outplaying the hobbled Joakim Noah, Nene will force Roy Hibbert into extended minutes or the embarrassment of getting benched for Ian Mahinmi yet again. Meanwhile, Paul George will face off with John Wall and Bradley Beal in a battle of up-and-coming stars. These matchups and storylines provide some intrigue, and the Pacers’ ability or inability to succeed figures to carry the entertainment value of this series.
Or perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at it. While the Wizards lack the season-long arc of the Pacers, they arguably have more to offer audiences right now. After handling the Bulls with aplomb, the Wizards appear to be a young, up-and-coming team just starting to discover its limits. Washington lacks Indiana’s assumed ceiling, but this squad also seems more capable of playing to that potential this spring. Wall and Beal look set to become the NBA’s best backcourt sooner rather than later, and their veteran role players provide some continuity. We might have reason to forget the Pacers by the end of this series.
Rating: 6 Wolf Blitzer Season Tickets Out of 10
Prediction: Wizards in 6.