By: Ryan Rodriguez
After all the talk about the Pacers crumbling to the lowly Hawks and failing to get out of the first round, here they are in the second round after putting together two solid games to finally close out Atlanta (I couldn’t bring myself to watch Indiana, so the last half of the sentence is purely what I’ve heard people say). They now get a date against a rested Washington Wizards team that put an unexpected beat down on the Chicago Bulls in the first round and have been off since last Tuesday, watching and preparing to make an unexpected push to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pacers have to be more than happy to look across the court and see two traditional bigs in the starting lineup for the Wizards after all the trouble the Hawks’ 5-out offense gave them, while the Wizards should have some confidence after dispatching the Pacers’ only rival in defensive efficiency with an offensive precision they did not show throughout the season. With that said, let’s get to the preview of the series.
The Pacers took the season series 2-1 as they used stifling defense (duh) to hold the Wizards to under 75 points twice and produce two 20-point wins. However, both of those wins happened when Indiana was looking like a completely different team, you know that one that looked like it was a legitimate challenger to the Miami Heat in the East. When they met late in March, the Wizards notched a double digit win on their home court. I think it is safe to say that not much can be gleamed from the regular season results because the Pacers are a different team than the one that played through January, Nene didn’t play in one regular season match-up, and of course, it is now the playoffs.
The Battle of the Front Lines
In the first round of the playoffs, we saw the Pacers completely change their identity, rarely using Roy Hibbert as the series progressed because he just couldn’t be effective against the Hawks’ bigs who preferred to sit out at the 3-point line and take Hibbert out of the paint. Meanwhile, the Wiz were grinding the Bulls’ bigs into submission, as Marcin Gortat, and Nene especially, helped the Wizards post an offensive efficiency rating of 108.9 for the series, a solid bump up from their season rating of 106.0.
The Pacers have to feel good about the ability to slot Hibbert back into the lineup, even if only for defensive purposes, so they can get back to their identity of playing two traditional bigs at all times. I imagine the Pacers will use David West on Nene, so as to match his mobility, but as the last series showed us, Nene just vaporized a more mobile big, the Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah.
It is going to be imperative that Hibbert channel all of his defensive skills to help West neutralize Nene and still show some ability to slide back and stop Gortat for the inevitable dump offs. As much as Hibbert has regressed since February, I still believe in his rim protection, and it will be very important against a team that employs offensive bigs like the Wiz, in addition to driving dynamo John Wall.
George Hill is going to be very important for the Pacers if they want to win this series. Him, along with Hibbert, are the poster children for the drop in play the Pacers have experienced, and once again, he is going to be faced with going up against one of the other team’s top players, this time John Wall. Now I don’t think he will be guarding him the whole time, I imagine Paul George will get a fair share of time on Wall like he did on Jeff Teague in the last round, but Hill will have to check Wall at times. And when he is not on him, he will have to do an expert job on either Trevor Ariza or Martell Webster, both of whom will be seeking deadly corner 3s, or helping clog the paint and then recovering hard to either force long 2s or contested drives to the paint.
On offense, he has to put some pressure on Wall through drives when he has the ball and active movement, cuts and relocations, when George or Lance Stephenson are handling the ball. Most importantly, he will need to improve on his 25% 3-point shooting when he gets the inevitable wide open 3s.
These two teams are proving to be pretty tough to figure out, as the Pacers are continuing their roller coaster ride while the Wiz dropped possibly their best five game stretch of the season last round. These teams are much closer than the season series and records indicate and it should make for a close, hard fought series. The Wiz are trying to dupe the nation into thinking they are savants of tight games, executing late in games last series and pulling out big wins, but anyone who watched them this season had to be surprised as anyone that they weren’t actually choking those games away.
I don’t expect them to be as unflappable as they were last series, for nothing else than regression, while I think the Pacers are happy to be facing a team that plays right into their strength on defense. All things considered, I think the Pacers take this in 7 as the Wiz go through the usual progression of baby steps to get to the top.Published 06 May 2014, 01:20 IST