The fifth-seeded Washington Wizards and top-seeded Indiana Pacers will begin their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup Monday night in Indiana. The Wizards dropped both regular season games in Indiana — where they’ve lost 12 consecutive games dating from April 11, 2007 — before cruising to a win a Verizon Center in their third meeting.
Here are three keys to the outcome of the series:
Trevor Ariza vs. Paul George
George didn’t play particularly well against the Wizards this season, averaging 16.7 points on 32.7 percent shooting. Much of that credit goes to Ariza, whose length allows him to counter George on the defensive end and keep him from penetrating to the basket. Ariza’s ability to keep George out of the paint will also be critical on the other end of the floor, where the Pacers all-star has had his way on the boards against the Wizards with an average of nine per game. Just as important is Bradley Beal’s defense of triple-double threat Lance Stephenson, the other Indiana player capable of igniting the Pacers by attacking from the perimeter.
Roy Hibbert snapped out of his funk in Indiana’s Game 7 win against Atlanta with 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks after becoming just the second player in NBA history to record consecutive scoreless playoff outings after making the all-star game that same season. Nene and Marcin Gortat have the opportunity to give the Wizards a strong advantage on the interior, with Nene stretching the defense with his mid-range jumper and Gortat controlling the boards with his physical play. The less Hibbert does, the less he will play, which should open the paint for John Wall to penetrate and either score or dish to sharpshooting teammates Beal and Ariza. Still, the Wizards must be careful not to resort to the type of high volume three-point shooting that ultimately doomed the undersized Hawks against Indiana.
Outpacing the Pacers
Like Chicago, the Pacers found regular season success behind a deliberate pace and strong defense that held opponents to a NBA-low 42 percent shooting from the field. Unlike the Bulls, Indiana has offensive weapons in George, David West and Stephenson. Getting out to early leads will again be key to the Wizards’ success as they work to keep the tempo high enough to suit the speed and skills of Wall and to create shooting space for Beal and Ariza. Meantime, the Pacers are more prone to mistakes at a quicker pace: They average 15.8 turnovers per 100 possessions.
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