Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Bradley Beal became the first player in NBA history to have three playoff games with at least 25 points before his 21st birthday. Magic Johnson did so for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980 playoffs, when he was 20.
INDIANAPOLIS — Washington’s basketball franchise hadn’t experienced the pleasure of winning a second-round playoff game since the Reagan administration. It hadn’t won a game of any kind in Indiana since George W. Bush was in office. But when the Wizards arrived at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday for their Eastern Conference semifinal game against the Indiana Pacers, they were more concerned with making history than allowing past failures to haunt them.
The Wizards were rested and ready for the top-seeded Pacers, jumped out to an early double-digit lead and held on for a 102-96 victory that scratched two glaring and embarrassing marks from the to-do list. Bradley Beal scored a game-high 25 points and Trevor Ariza had 22 as the Wizards won their fourth straight road game in the playoffs and took a one-game-to-none lead in this best-of-seven series.
With each postseason win, before each stunned silent crowd, the Wizards continue to believe that this run doesn’t have to end anytime soon.
“Our goal from the beginning of training camp was just to make the playoffs, but after a while, you kind of build a little confidence and feel like you belong,” John Wall said after scoring 13 points and handing out nine assists for a team that has won nine of its past 10 games.
Washington won a second-round playoff game for the first time since 1982 — before all but three members of the team were born — and snapped a 12-game losing streak in Indiana, dating from April 11, 2007.
“We know this is a tough building to play in. We haven’t won here in a while. Why wouldn’t this be the best time to come in here and get a win in the playoffs,” Ariza said after going 6 for 6 from long distance to match his own franchise playoff record for three-pointers in a game. He also broke the previous record of four without a miss, set by Kevin Grevey for the Bullets in 1982.
Ariza helped limit Pacers all-star forward Paul George to just 18 points on 4-for-17 shooting.
Beal became the first player since Magic Johnson in 1980 to have three playoff games with at least 25 points before his 21st birthday, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter.
“The way I think about it, I’m 20 years old, playing in the playoffs, something I always dreamed about, so why not embrace it? Why not accept that challenge?” Beal said after also contributing seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals. “I’m just having fun on a great team. Whenever we play together and play the right way, it motivates me to be the best player I can be.”
Backup forward Drew Gooden — one of three players on the Wizards’ roster with NBA Finals experience — was used sparingly in the first round, with Coach Randy Wittman relying on the hustle of Trevor Booker to help them match the physicality of the Chicago Bulls. The Pacers, however, presented a favorable matchup for Washington given Gooden’s ability to rebound and spread the floor. During a timeout in the third quarter, a Pacers fan told Gooden he thought he had retired from the NBA. Gooden, who was picked up from his couch in late February, laughed and said, “I did, but they pulled me back in.”
The move paid off in the regular season as Gooden helped the Wizards survive the late-season, 22-game absence of Nene. And on Monday, Gooden scored 12 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in just 18 minutes of action.
“It feels good to help my team win, no matter what I did,” Gooden said. “The ball was definitely on my side.”
Marcin Gortat (12 points, 15 rebounds) said before the game that he hoped former Georgetown center Roy Hibbert would continue his postseason vanishing act, claiming he would be okay if Hibbert finished with no points and two rebounds. The Pacers would have preferred to have that much production from Hibbert, who finished scoreless with no rebounds and five personal fouls in 18 minutes. It was the third time this postseason that Hibbert failed to score or grab a rebound.
“We’re at the point where we really need Roy, and we need him now,” George said.
The Wizards outrebounded the Pacers 53-36 and dominated them on the offensive glass 17-6, proving to be the more physical team. “We know this is going to be a war,” said Wittman, an Indianapolis native who had a nice homecoming, becoming the first coach since Mike Dunleavy in 1991 to win his first four road playoff games. “It was a very physical game. We were lucky enough to come out. Winning the board battle is important for us.”
The Wizards had five days to get prepared for the second round after eliminating the Bulls in five games, a series victory that did wonders for their confidence. Indiana had been an unforgiving place for Washington over the past seven years, with the team routinely collecting blowout losses and coming back for more. This regular season was no different as the Wizards had the third-lowest scoring total in franchise history with 66 points in one game, notched a measly 73 in the other and got blown out by a combined 47 points.
But Washington has won the past two games by pushing the tempo against the plodding Pacers to “make those guys run a lot,” Wall said.
Ariza got the Wizards off to the best possible start by draining two three-pointers as they scored the first eight points. From there, Washington found a way to stave off every Pacers run, with Beal providing the finishing touches as Indiana lost for the fifth time in his past nine games at home. Beal hit a three-pointer from the left corner and another near the top of the key to give the Wizards a 90-78 lead. Gooden followed with a rebound tip-in to extend the lead to 12. But the Wizards were unable to pull away as Beal inexplicably missed three consecutive free throws, including one that didn’t touch the rim. In the final minute, Pacers fans heckled Beal about his air ball, and he hit two free throws.
“With people chanting, ‘Air ball,’ I just wanted to try to make them be quiet and get them out of my head a little bit,” Beal said. “Yeah, we won one game here in Indiana, but at the same time, we still got to get three more, and we have to be more desperate each and every game because we know Indiana is a great team and anything can happen in the playoffs.”