INDIANAPOLIS – Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman was more than aware of his team’s third-quarter woes heading into a win-or-go-home Game 5 against Indiana on Tuesday. His response was to deny his young team recess during halftime, sending the squad out with 10 minutes to go in the 16-minute playoff halftime break to run drills, rather than letting his potentially nervous squad get its rest.
The result was a 31-14 Washington run in the third quarter, and eventual 102-79 win over Indiana, keeping the team’s season alive in the second round and ensuring the Wizards would live on to play a Game 6 at home against a Pacers team that was expected to contend for a championship this season.
The Wizards played like your typical cornered animal, staying aggressive while taking chances on both ends – chances that weren’t taken when the team seemed to shrivel a bit while technically working ahead of the favored Pacers in Washington during losses in Games 3 and Game 4. The Wizards still made a point to intelligently execute against the league’s best regular-season defense throughout, as this wasn’t some sort of pell-mell and desperate attack.
Washington was constantly cutting away from the ball, drawing the eyes of the Pacers' big men off their men and onto potential collapsing scorers. As a result, Washington ran up a ridiculous 62-23 rebounding advantage, picking up 13 second-chance points along the way, while taking advantage of what Pacers forward David West called Indiana’s “home-run turnovers” as the Wizards leaked out to 17 fast-break points.
The Wizards were “not ready to go home,” Washington coach Randy Wittman said following his team’s win, and that was obvious from the outset. Going into scoring center Marcin Gortat for the team’s first two plays (both scores) helped set the tone, as Gortat attempted to make up for a two-point, three-rebound performance in Game 4 the first-year Washington center called “one big hell” on Tuesday night.
Gortat finished with a dominant 31 points and 16 rebounds in the win, scoring on either rolls to the basket, post-ups on 2014 Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Roy Hibbert, or by crashing the offensive glass for one of his seven caroms on that end.
“Obviously,” Gortat pointed out in the wake of his huge night, “when you score the first basket, the second basket, you feel more in the flow of the game.” And, in a nod to both his disappointing performance in Game 4 and his oft-criticized minutes allotment from Wittman in that frustrating Sunday night, Marcin cracked that “Obviously, I was rested after Game 4.”
This wasn’t Gortat’s first knockout performance of the postseason, he’s managed 21 points in Game 2 of this series, 15 rebounds in Game 1 and double-doubles in half his playoff contests. Still, the seeming ease in which he was able to glide to the front of the rim on either planned or broken plays had Indiana on its heels, necessitating that Washington All-Star guard John Wall not have to play a dominant role in a series in which he's struggled.
Wall seemed to overcome those frustrations in the Game 5 win, totaling 27 points, five assists and five boards, and both he and Gortat mentioned a pregame discussion between the two where the pair solemnly told each other it was time to step up in what could have been the last game of Washington’s season.
Wittman, meanwhile, noticed his star guard “was down on himself this morning,” before telling him to “play like a wild man” prior to Game 5.
“’If you have 20 turnovers, then you have 20 turnovers,’” Wittman recalled telling his franchise player, “and he responded in a big way.”
The Pacers could not say the same about themselves. Not without causing audible laughter in the team’s locker room after the loss.
Star swingman Paul George (who missed 10 of 15 shots) lamented his team’s lack of “grit or urgency,” while rugged forward David West straight up called his team out .
“We didn’t show up to play tonight,” West calmly complained after the game, “I just don’t know where we were tonight.” West pointed out the Pacers remain a “gang-rebound team,” that failed to rebound as a gang, and though he didn’t mention Paul George or Lance Stephenson (who combined to average a stellar 14 rebounds per game in the regular season) by name, he did go out of his way to inform the press that two other usually reliable rebounders in the Pacer starting lineup “combined for just one defensive rebound.” One look at the box score would reveal who those lacking glass-cleaners were.
Maybe this had less to do with Indiana’s lack of urgency – the team was down just seven points at the half and led by four points during the second quarter, after all – and Wittman’s ploy to start the second half, pitched in an attempt to avoid those third quarter clangfests.
“I sent them back out with ten minutes to at halftime,” Wittman pointed out with a crooked smile after his team’s win, “to run a two-man lay-up line.” The Wizards coach then promised the same routine would hold up in Game 6, back at Washington’s Verizon Center, and considering Indiana’s 46-point combined third-quarter advantage during the first four games of this series, the unorthodox move makes complete and total sense.
One shouldn’t discount Washington’s strategic maneuvers, beyond the halftime gimmick, as the team worked through Game 5. There was far more pressure on Indiana ball-handlers midway through possessions, attempting to break Pacer plays as the shot clock dwindled, and the offensive movement from the Wizards was fantastic as they rolled their way toward 102 points.
Attitude and effort have to come into play, though, at some point. And for the regular season’s second-ranked team in defensive rebounding rate to give up 18 offensive rebounds while being outrebounded by an astounding 39 caroms overall? For its 7-foot-2 center, one Mr. Hibbert, to pull an oh-fer on the defensive glass in 25 minutes? For Wall to continually press the action on both ends and for the 20-year-old Bradley Beal to consistently keep the Pacers defense on edge with his movement and cutting?
One team didn’t want to stop playing. And one team didn’t mind letting the series drag on.
They’ll both get what they earned in Washington on Thursday night.
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