By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Both the Indiana Pacers and the Washington Wizards have opportunities to prove something Tuesday night in Game 5 that doesn’t have much to do with the conclusion or extension of their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup.
Sure, the Pacers hold a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. But this one is important unto itself for what it might say about the Pacers or, more accurately, permit them to say about themselves.
All is well? You’re right where you were supposed to be? Maybe, maybe not. Indiana has had false starts before over the past month or so. Victories over Chicago and Miami, nailing down the East’s No. 1 seed, ousting Atlanta from Round 1 – those all supposedly were all-clear signs, only to have Indiana veer soon enough off the rails again.
Now they have the Wizards where they want them – on the brink of elimination, on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court – and a chance to smack down what had been a hot team and a trendy East semis pick just a week ago. The Pacers got an other-worldly game from Roy Hibbert in Game 2, pounced on a stinko performance by Washington in Game 3 (hey, almost every playoff team has one at some point) and rode on Paul George‘s lean shoulders to their comeback from 19 down in Game 4.
This would be the one, then, in which the Pacers could do themselves and their fan base proud. Start their engines, stomp on the pedal, click off 48 minutes worth of counter-clockwise laps and send the Wizards from the Brickyard to the graveyard. By ending this in a gentleman’s sweep, by asserting some real No. 1-ness over the conference’s No. 5 seed, by skipping the drama and drain of another trip to Washington and grabbing some flex days for themselves before opening the East finals at home, they could convince a few more skeptics and add legitimacy to their claim of being, y’know, back.
They also could back up what their coach, Frank Vogel, said last Sunday about playoff experience, something the Wizards are just now sampling. Remember, this season, this postseason push, is the culmination of something Indiana has been building for four years. One round, two rounds, three round, with its sight set on The Finals now.
That’s why the questions about playoff experience – habitually dismissed by Randy Wittman when asked about his youngish Wizards – get embraced by Vogel.
“I actually think it’s a big deal. It’s a big factor,” Vogel said. “I think experience in the playoffs gives you confidence. Not just overall experience, but experience as a group. This group has been there. They’ve got an incredible young nucleus and they have veterans that have been there, but not this unit. I think it’s a factor and hopefully it continues to work well for us.”
Wittman wants to cast that theory aside, at least until his players get their exit interviews. After Game 4, the Wizards’ newness to all this was offered up as an explanation for getting outscored 57-37 in the second half. And for a failure to execute with 6.1 seconds left and a chance to tie. And for every mishap before or in between.
“Why do I want to talk about inexperience? All that is is an excuse,” Wittman said. “I don’t want our guys looking for an excuse. They’re gonna grow, they’re gonna continue to do the things that they’re gonna do. This is a process. All right? But right now, I’m not blaming any of this on any youth or inexperience or who’s been in the playoffs and who hasn’t. We’re in the fight. We’ve got to stay in the fight. No excuses. And we’ve got to do down and win a game.”
The Wizards will need John Wall to do better than 11.5 points a game on 31.4 percent shooting, and to have more of a plan when he drives the ball besides simply shying away from the 7-foot-2 Hibbert. The big fellow has been in Bradley Beal‘s head, too, but with George blanketing Beal on the perimeter, the middle might be Beal’s best bet.
George, after his 39-point burst in Game 4, is going to require more professional defense than Trevor Ariza gave. The Nene who caused such fits for Chicago and center Joakim Noah in the first round is scoring just 11.8 points and pulling down just 4.3 rebounds a game in this series. He’s shooting 35.7 percent.
And then there is the third quarter, an Indiana strength all season and current a Washington crisis. The Pacers have controlled those 12 minutes after halftime in all four games, with a combined scoring edge of 42. The rest of the quarters the Wizards have been plus-19. It hasn’t mattered.
“We haven’t been able to figure that out,” Washington’s Al Harrington said Sunday. “That’s been us all year. [In the] third quarter, we just always seem to come out slow and sluggish. And then we find a way to ramp it up toward the end of the quarter and throughout the fourth quarter. In the playoffs at this time of year, you can’t afford that, especially against a good team.”
Indiana can reassert itself as that and sway some remaining doubters. Washington can learn on the fly and claim the knock-knock-knocking stuff is overrated.
That’s what is on the line in Game 5.