The Washington Wizards will enter Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday with their season on the line. Randy Wittman's club needs a win in Game 5 to begin its climb out of a 3-1 hole, send the action back to the nation's capital for a sixth game on Thursday and, if they're lucky, resurrect some of the demons of doubt that plagued the Pacers after the All-Star break, throughout their opening-round set against the Atlanta Hawks, and in a Game 1 that saw them forfeit home-court advantage to a relentless, bombs-away Wiz gang.
As the Wizards look to rage against the dying of the light and the Pacers aim to put the final nail in Washington's coffin, here are two big things to keep an eye out for when you tune in on Tuesday night.
1. Can John Wall find some room to maneuver?
There's a reason that most discussion of the Wizards' fate and Game 5 chances has focused on their point guard. He is the engine of their offense, their lone All-Star, the player whose combination of speed, vision and daring can bend opposing defenses beyond their breaking point … and he has been completely swallowed up since Game 1.
Wall has logged 109 minutes over the last three games. The Wizards have been outscored by 46 points in that span. He has made less than one-third of his shots since Game 1, including just one of his eight 3-point tries, and passed up an open look late in Game 4 that had some wondering whether the former No. 1 overall draft pick has lost some confidence amid his second-round struggles. (It's worth noting that Wall's pass created an even-more-open look for Bradley Beal, the Wizards' leading scorer in this series, who had made two of his previous three triples in Game 4 and is shooting 40 percent from deep against Indiana.)
Indiana's methods of defending Wall haven't changed drastically since the regular season. As USA TODAY Sports' Adi Joseph notes, he's seen heavy doses of strong on-ball defense from Pacers point guard George Hill, backstopped by a behemoth big man — either resurgent 7-foot-2, 290-pound starting center Roy Hibbert or 6-foot-11, 250-pound backup Ian Mahinmi — ready to corral the hiccup-quick Wall if he slips past the initial line of defense, close off the paint from penetration, and force the former Kentucky star into either dribbling out, passing it up for a reset, or firing a midrange jumper.
Wall knocked down those between-the-paint-and-arc attempts at a 36.6 percent clip during the regular season — not elite by any means and a bit of a dip from last year (37.8 percent), but a significant step up from what he's managed this postseason (14-for-51, 27.5 percent thus far) and over the last three losses in particular (3-for-12, 25 percent). Again, though, this is in line with the way Wall worked against the Pacers during the regular season, when he missed 20 of his 27 midrange shots (25.9 percent), most of which came over the outstretched arm of Hill, Hibbert or Mahinmi.
The key, then, would seem to be to find more opportunities for Wall to operate without having to stare down all those big bodies in a shrunken half-court setting, whether for himself or for others; 11 of Wall's 30 assists in the second round have come on the fast break, according to a video review. The Pacers have also been very good there, though, preferring to foul Wall when he begins to build a head of steam rather than letting him get all the way to the paint — just three of his 16 made field-goals in this series have come off transition opportunities, whereas seven of the 15 personal fouls he's drawn have come courtesy of a Pacer hauling himself back to prevent a run-out bucket.
There is, of course, value even in that. If Wall pushes at every opportunity from the opening tip and forces clutch-and-grab fouls on members of the Pacers' vaunted starting five, then Frank Vogel could have to go to his bench earlier and more often than he'd like. But such gains could come at the price of Wall getting gassed early. Then again, if the run of play continues apace and unless the touch on his jumper magically returns before Tuesday's tipoff, the Wizards' only chance at extending the series might be Wall charging the Pacers until either he or they drop.
2. Which bench can pick up its starters?
The Wizards turned a first-quarter deficit into a double-digit second-quarter lead in Game 4 thanks to a sterling performance by their second string. Alongside second-year star Beal, the reserve group of veterans Andre Miller, Drew Gooden, Al Harrington and Martell Webster — lovingly labeled "the AARP Unit" by Wiz fans — was an offensive force in the second half of the regular season, outscoring opponents by more than 11 points per 100 possessions with a combination of long-range shotmaking, offensive board-crashing, and savvy spacing and passing that drove defenses crazy. Bullets Forever's Mike Prada called for liberal doses of the AARP Unit in this matchup, and they showed why in Game 4.
That lineup outscored Indiana 19 points in 15 shared minutes of floor time, with the puttering Miller giving the Pacers defense a change-of-pace look after the hard-charging Wall, Gooden continuing to prove adept at working Indy's bigs on the glass, and Harrington and Webster showing the ability to not only knock down perimeter jumpers but attack closeouts en route to either higher-percentage looks or fouls drawn near the basket. They gave Wittman exactly what he needed on Sunday; with the season on the line, will he go back to the veteran lineup earlier and/or more often in Game 4?
The success of the AARP Unit only made the failure of the Pacers' reserves all the more glaring. They provided a measly two points on 1-for-9 shooting with five turnovers against two assists, and for the most part, that about sums up how poor the Pacers' second unit has been in this series. Swingman Evan Turner — supposedly brought in at the trade deadline to add secondary ball-handling, perimeter athleticism and offensive punch off the pine — has done none of that while also serving as a defensive turnstile en route to a -22 mark in 53 minutes against the Wiz. After playing such a big role in place of Hill in the Pacers' seven-game win over the Hawks, C.J. Watson is shooting 35.3 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from 3-point land, has missed his last four long balls, has struggled to match up with Wall's speed or Miller's size defensively, and is a -26 in 55 minutes.
The Wizards are shooting much more comfortably with Mahinmi on the floor (47.7 percent from the field, 66.7 percent inside the restricted area) than with Hibbert out there (40.8 percent and 54.5 percent, respectively), and the big Frenchman hasn't offered much offensively outside of a six-point showing in Game 2. And power forward Luis Scola's been a trick-or-treat performer, chipping in double-figure scoring in Games 1 and 3 to go with goose eggs in Games 2 and 4, while looking customarily creaky and a step slow on the defensive end to boot.
Thanks to the revival of Hibbert since Game 1 and a pair of huge outings for George in Games 3 and 4, the Pacers' second-unit struggles haven't sunk them yet in the second round. Should either of Indy's two All-Stars stumble, though — and especially if leader David West (just 40.8 percent from the field this series) continues to have trouble finding his range — Vogel and company will need something, anything from those reserves. A "treat" game from Scola. A return to Round 1 from Watson. A version of Turner who, if nothing else, can bring the ball over half-court and make an entry pass. (Maybe even a cameo from mothballed floor-spacer Chris Copeland?) If he doesn't get it, Indy could be packing for another trip to D.C. rather than getting five full days of rest while waiting out the winner of the series between the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets before beginning the Eastern Conference finals at home in Indianapolis.
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