By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – As they lick their wounds again and assure themselves, again, that they’ll be all right, the Indiana Pacers might be revealing what their biggest problem is in this Eastern Conference semifinal series and perhaps has been for a while.
They aren’t fearful of the Washington Wizards. They aren’t overmatched or intimidated, and they certainly aren’t taking the Wizards lightly.
The Pacers are jealous of the Wizards.
Oh, to be younger and inexperienced and unencumbered by expectations. To be the underdogs – ahh! – who had the ability to surprise and overachieve and feel good with each little victory, regardless even of the outcome of games. It wasn’t that long ago that the Pacers were that team.
With the Miami Heat grabbing all the attention from The Decision of July 2010 going forward, with the Chicago Bulls and Derrick Rose playing peek-a-boo as regular-season heroes and a legit but hobbled contender, it wasn’t that long ago that the Pacers were the Wizards.
On the rise. playing with abandon. Making names and reputations for themselves, with little or no anxiety over disappointing someone. That’s the Indiana team that earned all the respect and preseason predictions heading into 2013-14, that’s the Indiana team that had all the fun.
But that Indiana team is gone forever, erased by the Pacers’ success through the first four months (46-13 through March 2) and weighed down ever since by the expectations, knee-deep praise and dealing with the shift from chasers to chased.
You scoff? Who had more fun in Game 5 Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the on-the-brink Wizards or the three-games-to-win-one Pacers? The game was a rout, with Washington leading by as much as 30 while pounding their hosts in all sorts of NSFW ways on the glass.
Nearly tripling the other guys in total rebounds (62-23)? Whoa. Wizards coach Randy Wittman paused and admitted he never had seen anything like that. For much of the night, Marcin (The Dream) Gortat had as many boards as the whole Indiana team. The upstarts wound up with nearly as many offensive rebounds (18) as the Pacers grabbed defensively (19).
Gortat attacked Indiana from the start like he sensed their vulnerability, the tentativeness that has hovered over the East’s No. 1 seed since March. He tossed in hook shots, threw down dunks, mixed in a turnaround or two from the baselines and growled loudly enough that Indiana’s Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi sought cover.
But frankly, they had company on a Pacers squad that, lately, might not say boo if you took their jerseys, their dogs and their parking spaces. If Larry Bird wasn’t sick to his stomach watching his team’s performance Tuesday, then the smirking assassin everyone remembers from his Boston Celtics days either has been lobotomized or gelded.
“It’s everything: Shocking. Disappointing,” said forward Paul George, who would have had to ring up another 39 to keep his team in this one. He didn’t, scoring 15.
“We’re better than that. No way we should allow a team on our floor to outrebound us by 40. Regardless of if we’re playing a team full of 7-footers. That’s unacceptable.”
It was, in short, the kind of performance a bunch of newbies might be permitted to have – not far off Washington’s 63-point mess in Game 3 – but not the big, bad leaders of the East.
“Not when you’re a group that’s been together for a while,” George said, agreeing. “Not with a group that, like us, has been together, been through so much. A lot of adversity. It should be easy to treat a game like it’s a win-or-go-home game, especially when you have the opportunity to close them out. We’ve done it before in other series, where we took care of business when we needed to. So it’s no excuse for this one.”
No excuses, just explanations. Gortat having the night of his life, banging and scoring enough for both himself and the barely visible Nene. Wittman had his players pressure up defensively this time, exploiting Indiana’s unreliable ball handlers and, more important, dialing up the game’s pace to more than walk-it-up.
And then there was John Wall, Washington’s point guard who had sputtered through most of the first four games. He is kind of a one-man Indiana in terms of his career arc and the expectations heaped upon him now, four years in with an $80 million contract, All-Star acclaim and impatience among Wizards fans for something beyond individual achievements.
Gortat spoke after the game of the shell into which Wall had retreated all day Tuesday, no rapping, no laughing, hardly any words. Wittman did what he could to try to shake him loose from it.
“John was down on himself a little bit this morning,” the Wizards coach said. “I told him, the point where he’s getting in his career, he’s an All-Star and now he’s in the second round of the playoffs for the first time, that ‘you have to have a thick skin. You have to forget quickly and you have to move on.’
“I told him I wanted him to come out tonight and just play like a wild man. ‘If you have 20 turnovers, you have 20 turnovers. I want you, though, energizing our guys, racing the ball up and down the floor, defensively getting after it,’ and he did that.”
Wall played with an abandon the Pacers, however much they once had it, lost around the time our clocks sprung forward. He finished with 27 points – 17 in the game-breaking 31-14 third quarter, when he topped the Pacers by his lonesome – and was woofing by the end.
Wall had more fun, and a sense of relief and rebirth, than the entire Indiana squad. Over on the other side, George was trying to explain, and maybe sell, what had gone on with his team at the absolute worst time. And you could sense some longing for the days when he and the Pacers were the ones trying to make their bones.
They’re at the other end of the expectations now.
“We get too happy. We get too happy,” Paul said. “We don’t carry that same mindset after we win a couple of games. We get comfortable and we feel like, because we’re starting to play a little better, that things are just going to get right. We don’t bring that edge, that these are must-win games.”
The Pacers claimed they tried to play Tuesday as if they were facing a Game 7. They failed, instead inching closer to a real one.