After Indiana finally outlasted the upstart Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 on Saturday night, Sunday marked the first practice in which the Washington Wizards could prepare for their second-round series with an actual opponent in mind. Still, after dismantling the defensively sound Chicago Bulls in five games during their first playoff series win since 2005, the Wizards’ approach won’t change much heading into Monday’s Game 1 at 7 p.m. against an equally physical and slow-paced Pacers team.
“It’s a great team. Real physical. Similar to Chicago, just the way they play kind of slow,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said. “But they have a lot of threats on their team on both sides of the floor. We’ve definitely got to be bought in, ready to go from the jump. Hopefully they’ll be pretty tired. We’ve got to get out to an early start against them because we know what they’re capable of doing.”
After sputtering for much of their first-round series against Atlanta, the top-seeded Pacers looked like the team that went 33-8 to start the season. Paul George scored a series-high 30 points, and Roy Hibbert awoke from his recent slumber to score 13 points and block five shots.
Washington twice fell victim to Indiana during the Pacers’ torrid start, falling by a combined 47 points in two games in Indiana, where the Wizards have lost 12 straight.
The Wizards reversed their fortune in a March 28 win at Verizon Center, thanks in large part to their up-tempo play and defensive effort. By swarming talented Indiana wing players George and Lance Stephenson around the perimeter, Washington forced the Pacers into tough shots and misses that turned into 18 transition points. The Wizards totaled just 14 fast-break points in their two losses at Indiana, including zero in their Nov. 29 defeat.
Behind Washington’s recent elevated play, a brand that’s produced victories in eight of their last nine games, the Wizards aren’t worried about re-entering a place where they haven’t won since April 11, 2007.
“We’re really confident,” Wizards center Marcin Gortat said. “We had two actually pretty good games over there, even though we lost. We played hard for 48 minutes. We just couldn’t make a shot.”
Gortat’s confidence also rests in the recent struggles of Hibbert, who is averaging just 5.3 points and 3.7 rebounds in the playoffs. Should Gortat be able to push around Hibbert inside, and if Nene is able to pull Hibbert and Pacers forward David West outside with his midrange jumper, the Wizards can position themselves to thwart Indiana’s preference to play inside-out.
“I’m hoping (Hibbert’s) going to play the way he’s playing now,” Gortat said. “I don’t want this guy to come in and drop 20 and 15 on me. So if he drops zero and two, I’m cool with that.”
The Pacers have built a reputation for their defensive prowess by holding opponents to an NBA-low 42 percent shooting during the regular season and dominating the boards to erase second-chance opportunities.
With Indiana possessing big, physical players in Hibbert, West and Luis Scola, creating close, open looks could be a bit tougher for the Wizards than they found it to be against the Bulls. But the keys to counter this remain the same — an up-tempo style rooted in John Wall’s speed and penetrating ability while creating a pace that jolts the Pacers into more turnovers.
“We’re probably going to have to play at an even faster pace to take advantage of what we need to take advantage of,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “They want to walk it up the floor to take advantage of what their strengths are. We’ve got to make them play at a faster pace, make them speed up their game.”
One Indiana player who doesn’t mind playing at a higher tempo is Stephenson. The fourth-year guard is the team’s leader in rebounds and assists, which demonstrates his ability to hurt teams off the dribble. Beal, along with Trevor Ariza, will be tasked with slowing Stephenson and George along the perimeter and establishing the tone early in a hostile road environment.
“We’ve got to increase our intensity because it’s a tougher team and it’s definitely going to be a battle,” said Beal, who is averaging a team-high 19.8 points in the playoffs. “They can wear you down, and if you let them hang around, anything is possible with the guys they have.”