When the Indiana Pacers destroyed the Wizards 93-66 on Jan. 10, both teams’ narratives seemed set.
The Pacers improved to 29-7 with the win and seemed like a real threat to unseat Miami’s reign in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards fell to 16-18 and looked like a team still searching for an identity.
But what a difference a few months make.
The Wizards come steamrolling into the Eastern Conference semifinals off an impressive five-game knockout of Chicago, capping a solid late-season finish. Meanwhile, the Pacers barely hung on to beat eighth-seeded Atlanta after a tumultuous final month of the regular season.
Even without home-court advantage, the Wizards appear to be the better team.
“People are going to start jumping on your bandwagon, giving you praise and saying, ‘You’re capable of making it far,’ but we have to stick together and just focus on what we need to do in winning games,” guard Bradley Beal said. “We can’t really focus on the media and the outside people telling us how great we are. That’s the last thing we need.”
The Wizards spent much of the past week preparing for both Atlanta and Indiana, but now that they know the Pacers are the opponent, they are aware of the challenges of stopping them.
“Indiana is a power team,” coach Randy Wittman said. “They are a real physical team.”
For several of the Wizards, the rest they’ve been able to get since closing out Chicago has been critical, but they also realize the action will ramp back up tonight.
“When the ball goes up, we need to be on,” Nene said. “We just need to maintain the same things we’ve been doing.”
Wizards vs. Pacers Season Rewind
Nov. 29: Pacers 93, Wizards 73 — Nene and Bradley Beal missed this first meeting between the teams, and the Wizards struggled to score, tallying zero fast-break points as Paul George led the Pacers to an easy win.
Jan. 10: Pacers 93, Wizards 66 — This rout was Washington’s 12th straight defeat in Indianapolis, and the Wizards scored their fewest points of the season in the loss.
March 28: Wizards 91, Pacers 78 — Reflective of the team’s changing fortunes, Washington never trailed in this easy win against a Pacers squad that shot 35 percent and committed 17 turnovers.
Marcin Gortat vs. Roy Hibbert — The Pacers’ big man has fallen apart down the stretch, and it will be critical for Gortat to keep Hibbert’s confidence down by preventing him from deciding play in the paint on either end of the floor.
Bradley Beal vs. Lance Stephenson — Stephenson has the ability to change the game with his driving and slashing style. Beal will face one of his bigger defensive challenges in trying to slow the Pacers guard, while also having to maintain his offensive presence.
Nene vs. David West — Aside from his suspension, Nene was a key component in the Wizards’ first-round win. He’ll face off against one of the Pacers’ few consistent scoring threats, and one who will make Nene work harder than Chicago’s Joakim Noah away from the basket.
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