And then reality sank in. The Wizards won three in a row against three lottery teams with a combined record of 76-158 and started to gain some confidence — “a swagger,” as Jordan Crawford put it.
But when they faced an Indiana Pacers team that was at full strength and playing for something meaningful, the Wizards were competitive for about, oh, eight minutes. They lost 136-112, but the game was over shortly after it began.
I feel like I’ve seen the same game every time I come to Indianapolis, with the Pacers going on a back-breaking run that turns a close game into a laugher in a matter of minutes. That run usually happens in the second quarter or the third quarter. On Wednesday, the Pacers never let the Wizards feel like they had a chance and were able to clinch their first playoff berth since 2006.
“We really lost the game in the first six or seven minutes,” Coach Flip Saunders said. The Pacers “did what they had to do. They had time, rest, getting a team on a back-to-back with a lot of guys playing 40 minutes. You come in with energy and you try to exert your will on them and that’s what they did.”
JaVale McGee picked up two quick fouls in the first four minutes and was lost for the rest of the night. Kevin Seraphin replaced McGee and picked up two fouls in two minutes. Yi Jianlian replaced Seraphin and had two fouls before the end of the first period, when the Pacers attempted 15 free throws and scored 43 points.
“It hurt us when they got all them free throws. Took away our aggressiveness. Got in players heads, took them out of the game, kind of carried with us the whole game,” Crawford said after scoring a game-high 29 points. “We came out, we wasn’t disciplined, got all those fouls. Killed us.”
The Wizards trailed by 20 early in the second period and after Crawford and Othyus Jeffers combined to go on a 9-0 run to bring the team within 51-40, it never got any closer for the rest of the night. The Pacers set a new opponent high for the first half with 75 points as the Wizards stumbled all over themselves on defense.
“They established dominance first,” Jeffers said of the Pacers. “We was kind of shorthanded without our big man. Three of our big men got in four trouble early. They was up 20 the whole game, it’s hard to fight back.”
McGee never had a chance to get into the game. He didn’t score until the third quarter, making a layup that brought the Wizards within 23, and was called for a technical foul a few seconds later. He later picked up his fourth foul trying to defend former Georgetown center Roy Hibbert and while McGee threw his hands to complain, Blatche exchanged words with Hibbert and both players were assessed with technicals.
“I was just standing up for my teammate,” Blatche said after recording his fourth straight game with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. “I ain’t going to let nobody talk about my teammate and I’m not going to have his back. That’s why we teammates. I just said, ‘Don’t talk like that to my teammate.’ And we got into a little argument. We both deserved our tech.”
McGee was called for his fifth foul immediately after the exchange, getting into another tussle with Hibbert in the low block. Afterward, McGee frowned, waved his arms again and shouted to himself as he went to the sideline, “How was that a foul?” Saunders yanked McGee and never put him back in the game. McGee finished with two points and one rebound.
The physical play reached the pinnacle when Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough drove inside for a layup and Blatche grabbed him by the shoulder and slung him to the ground, picking up a flagrant foul penalty one. Saunders and Crawford were also assessed technicals, as frustrations of getting outplayed on both ends bubbled to the surface.
“One of those nights,” said Maurice Evans, who went scoreless and missed all five of his field goal attempts in 24 minutes. Evans had a rough night, as he ruined his one chance to score when he got called for traveling before completing a fastbreak dunk.
“I think a barometer,” Saunders said, “Mo’s been so good for us. When you see he didn’t have energy and fumbling balls, that’s an indication of where you are as a team.”