Eastern Conference Semi-Finals: Washington Wizards vs. Indiana Pacers

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For the first game of the 2nd round, we are given two completely different teams. The Pacers, have had a very rocky finish to their year. They finished 12-13 in the regular season. They encountered fights in practice, criticism from Larry Bird and just about everybody else with eyes who’s seen them play. They had fights within the locker room or rather the practice gym (see Evan Turner and Lance Stephenson) and have even used the media as a vehicle for subtle jabs at teammates (see Roy Hibbert.) Paul George’s body hit the internet, and Frank Vogel’s job security shook like the rims they abuse with missed jump shots during their games. Then, when they thought things couldn’t get worse, they almost lost to the 8th seed in the 1st round. The Hawks took them to Game 7 and exposed their inability to play a small lineup, show up to games they’re supposed to win, and ability to score when they need to. It was a rough 1st round, but a win is a win, and now they’re here, where they should’ve been a week ago ready to take on the Washington Wizards.

For Washington, their first round experience was completely opposite to that of Indiana. The Wizards had a surprisingly successful season, going 44-38, their best record since 2005. Once in the playoffs, the Wizards surprised once more, by dominating the Bulls and moving on after a brief 5 game series. John Wall and Bradley Beal both stepped up from a playmaking and scoring standpoint, and in the eyes of many, completed their transition from boy to man. The two 20-something-year-olds challenged the usually flawless Chicago defense with a wide array of different attacks. The vision of John Wall penetrating and Beal shooting from the outside was broadcasted nationally and it looked scary, not for us, but for the rest of the teams in the NBA. The Wizards boast a nice blend of youth and veteran presence. Outside scoring and post threats. The ability to slow it down, and explode in the fast-break. The Wizards have hit the fast-forward button on the rebuilding remote and jumped about three years past where they thought they would be today. They are playing like the future Wizards should be… But then again, the future is now for Washington and they are ready after 5 days of rest to check off another contender from their kill list.

Washington:

Indiana clearly has the experience edge over the Wizards whose two best players are tasting the playoffs for the first time this year. This sounds good for the Pacers but this is the same edge they had in the 1st round and it didn’t go as planned. The Wizard’s are surprisingly tough and rugged. Marcin Gortat wants hockey-style fighting allowed in the NBA for christ sake.  Nene headbutts when he’s angry…  And John Wall doesn’t mind punching 7-foot players if he needs to. The Wizards are young but they are scrappy and showed in their series with Chicago they don’t mind playing slow and getting gritty. For the Wizards, playing the Bulls before this series was the perfect warm-up. The Pacers play the same way, both defensively and offensively. The Wizards experienced the toughness, and they learned and showed they can play in the half-court and be successful. Their stars shined, and their big men excelled (Nene averaged 18 points and 6 rebounds, and Marcin Gortat averaged 11 points and 10 rebounds) despite going up against notoriously strong defenders in Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.

The way the Wizards can kill the Pacers is through penetrating and kicking, something they excel at. They saw in the 1st round series with the Hawks that Jeff Teague got into the paint very easily. John Wall, is essentially a bigger, and much faster version of Teague and will have no problems getting into the paint. There are those who claim the series is perfect for Indiana because they’ve just spent 7 games battling with a team almost identical in offensive style to the Wizards. To those people I would say, they didn’t make adjustments. They took 7 games to beat the Hawks and won at home in Game 7. That doesn’t mean they’ve figured it out. It means they won the last available game there was to be had. I don’t think the Pacers are good at helping the gaps and stopping penetration nor do I think they really adjusted to the array of three point shooters that the Hawks had to offer. The Wizards know how to score the ball, something the Pacers struggle mightily with. The Wizards averaged 100 points per game during the regular season, and against the best defense in the NBA, averaged 99.5 if we exclude the Game 5 where only 144 points were scored in total. The Pacers who played against a very average defensive team in the first round (101 points per game), had a very hard time putting the ball in the hoop and scored only 94 points a game. That was without real interior presences like the Wizards have in Marcin Gortat and Nene.

The Wizards will also need to push the pace against the Pacers. They proved they could play in the half-court against Chicago, but playing faster makes the Pacers uncomfortable, and rushes their offense thus making scoring even harder. Offensively, on the perimeter the Wizards pose a big threat to Indiana. George Hill couldn’t keep up with Jeff Teague so there is no way in hell he keeps up with John Wall. Against Atlanta, Paul George took Teague for the last few games but he won’t be able to do that as much in this series because the Wizards boast so much length and size on the perimeter in Ariza and Beal. It’s unlike switching on someone like Korver who only comes off screens and curls, Ariza is a full offensive player and if guarded by someone smaller will take advantage of it. They also have the opportunity to go small if they want to. It’s clear HIbbert can’t handle being mobile along the perimeter so playing a lineup with Ariza at the 4 and maybe Al Harrington at the 5 is going to pose a lot of problems to Indiana.

The key for the Wizards defensively will be Trevor Ariza. Ariza, who has forever been hailed as a defensive stopper will have his hands full in this series. During the regular season, he held Paul George to 16 points per game, and will need to do bother him throughout the entire series because without Paul George the Pacers can’t score the ball, especially when Roy Hibbert is in a slump like the one he is in now. As a defensive plan, the Wizards have to pack the paint for penetration, and have Ariza stay on George the entire game. He can use his length and agility to alter George’s shot and prevent penetration. They shouldn’t worry about adjusting to Roy Hibbert until he shows he can get a double-double against them, something he hasn’t done in a while. Otherwise, the Wizards showed they can play defense for 48 minutes with the best in the NBA and should have no problem with Indiana.

Indiana:

Indiana finally got to the 2nd round, and unlike the Wizards who have been resting and practicing for 5 days, the Pacers have just come off of a win and are full of momentum and energy going into this series. The Wizards play a very similar style to the Hawks offensively, and to me that’s worrisome because it took the Pacers 7 games to figure the Hawks out and the Wizards are them just at a heightened level of talent and versatility offensively. Luckily, for Indiana they will be able to play their normal lineup in this series. That means Roy Hibbert will be in the game for his usual 30 minutes per, which means they’ll have someone guarding the rim and taking up space in the paint to prevent penetration. John Wall averaged only 13.7 points against Indiana in the regular season and a big part of that was because when he drove to the basket Roy Hibbert was standing there with two hands up as vertical as the Empire State building. I think for the Pacers they have to get him involved offensively in Game 1 as soon as possible. He’s averaged only 21.9 minutes a game so far this post-season, meaning he’s well-rested and ready to prove to everyone that he still remembers that he’s 7’2 and that he can play basketball. Giving him the ball and letting him get touches early on builds his confidence and gets him in a rhythm, because they are going to need him in this series if they want to win. Nene and Gortat are going to be scoring inside because that’s what they do, but if Hibbert can’t counter with post-moves of his own, then the Pacer offense is that much more stagnant. If Roy doesn’t get touches then he gets cranky, and if he isn’t happy, he moans, doesn’t get off the bench and is more prone to fouling – something they can absolutely not afford if they want to beat Washington. The big lineup for the Wizards is perfect for the Pacers but if they can’t take advantage of it, then it’s useless.

I don’t think they’ve figured it out, but they’re going to need to stop the three-ball in this series – something they left wide open way too often against Atlanta. They won’t have as much a problem with points in the paint, now that Hibbert will be there for an extra ten minutes a game, but helping on defense and getting out to shooters is a big part of their defense that they neglected in the 1st round and something that almost came around to bite them hard. Additionally, I think this series could be a big one for Evan Turner. Paul George will need to guard John Wall in this series to keep him from getting into the paint, and unlike Atlanta who played two point guards, or who had Korver coming off curls and screens, the Wizards play Wall, Beal and Ariza most of the time, all guys with size, meaning George Hill can’t switch onto anybody else. That means it might be go-time for Evan Turner, the 76’er prodigy who has yet to shine in a Pacer uniform. His versatility defensively will be key for them if they want to contain on the perimeter and get out to shooters.

Who Wins?

To me, although the Pacers struggled in the 1st round, this series is perfect for them match-up wise. With Hibbert on the floor more often, even if he doesn’t contribute offensively, he’ll pack the paint and take away a lot of John Wall’s points, which for the majority come inside as his jump-shot is something that’s never been consistent. Wall averaged 13 against the Pacers in the regular season on under 40% shooting and I think with Lance Stephenson attached to Bradley Beal, the two stars will have a tougher time against Indiana then they did against guys like Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler in the 1st round.

The Wizards showed they can play slow and still win games like that and playing Chicago was the perfect appetizer before the main course of Indiana. Roy Hibbert will play more, but hardly requires extra defensive attention. Before Saturday, he hadn’t reached double digits in scoring since the 4th of April. The Wizards are used to playing slow, they’re used to playing scrappy and they’ve won in one of the most harsh environments in the NBA in Chicago. Paul George only averaged 16 points against them, largely because of Trevor Ariza and his length and quickness on the perimeter as well as how quick the Wizards are in terms of their help defense. Washington is also very good at protecting the paint, only allowing 41 points a game during the regular season, good enough for 12th place among the rest of the NBA.

All in all, I think the pros balance out. Both stars will be diluted offensively in this series so it’ll be up to the “other guys” to step up and score a lot of the points. Roy Hibbert will be in the paint protecting the rim for Indiana but has become an offensive liability and may not be quick enough to stay with someone like Nene or Gortat from the post. The Wizards pose match-up difficulties for the Pacers, yet the Pacers just got out of a series on Saturday and have supposively figured out how to beat the type of offense that the Wizards like to play. It’s a very hard decision. One that I may regret. However, I think that Paul George will have a tough time in this series. Roy Hibbert may still have trouble with the very quick big-men of Washington, and god knows when he’ll find his offensive game again, and if we’re talking about teams who have learned and adjusted to playing a certain way, the Wizards win for being able to slow-down and grind it out against the Bulls, the closest thing the NBA has to offer to the Pacers. The backcourt of the Wizards don’t have great match-ups, but I think they’ve found their niche and their drive and kick style will pose problems for the Pacers who couldn’t figure it out against Atlanta.

Final Prediction:

Wizards in 7.

 

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