In NBA playoffs, Wizards, Pacers reverse outlooks in just a week

Looking back to just last week, it’s frankly wild how quickly fortunes change in this league.

Seven days is all it took for the Washington Wizards to go from winning Game 1 and golden to down three games to one and almost goners — to being on the cusp of shaking up the axis of power in the Eastern Conference to taking their rightful place below the team that took LeBron James and Miami to seven games a year ago.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

You think the Wizards are shaken? Think how the Pacers feel.

Between Games 1 and 2 in Indianapolis, I caught the elevator from the court level to the business offices of the Pacers above to see an old friend.

Donnie Walsh was at his desk in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, wondering whether his team was going to find itself before the season expired.

The Post Sports Live crew looks at the Wizards' victory over the Pacers in Game 1 of the NBA playoffs second round and debates whether Washington can win the series. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

“Washington has a really nice blend of youth and experience,” said Walsh, the Pacers’ former team president and now a consultant to Larry Bird. “I really like that back court; [John] Wall and [Bradley] Beal are really good together.

“You know, in a way, that team really reminds me of us a year ago and even two years ago. That’s when we had something to prove. The Wizards play like they have something to prove, like they have a hunger that we had.”

There was a little lament in that last part, as if Walsh was almost worried the window was closing.

The Pacers were down in the series at the time, having been picked apart by the Wizards on their home floor in the opener. Malicious (and completely unsubstantiated) reports of love triangles and bad juju among players in the locker room were awash on the Internet.

Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner had gone toe-to-toe in practice during the Atlanta series, a grueling seven-game affair the Pacers barely withstood.

Paul George appeared to have his head more in the clouds than on the court, and Roy Hibbert had become the NBA equivalent of a major league catcher who inexplicably couldn’t get the ball out of his glove to throw to second.

It might be hard to believe, but the heartland hoops of NBA teams had more drama than any big-market team could concoct.

The Pacers weren’t just fallible as a No. 1 seed; a squad that started the season on fire at 40-11, that was by far and away the best reason to bet against the Heat winning its third straight title, was now combustible.

All of Coach Frank Vogel’s optimism and no-worries mantras were starting to resemble deep denial more than unbridled support of his team.

Walsh wouldn’t let on about what the future held last Tuesday, but the Pacers seemed to have two choices: Get their game together now or detonate themselves, blow up their championship-team visions — and possibly the roster.

Legends such as Bird and lifers such as Walsh, who once played for Frank McGuire and Dean Smith at North Carolina and is now 73 years old, die inside a little when the team they assembled can’t get over the hump. Sure, no one is going hungry, and it’s still sports and all that. But there is nothing worse for an NBA executive than the realization the team you put together simply doesn’t have the necessary heart and hunger to do what you thought it could.

David West was looking like a faux tough guy in the middle. All the bench pieces were looking rusty and dated. The gamble at the trade deadline to bring in Andrew Bynum failed. Turner had turned into nothing but a quick rental.

And three games later, here are the Pacers, their faith in each other renewed, their goal of unseating Miami still alive and very much kicking.

Now comes the realization on the other side for Ernie Grunfeld, the team president of the Wizards. Now comes the hard part for Washington’s executives after a Game 4 meltdown at home, after a winnable Game 2 in Indiana that rightly could have helped the Wizards be up three games to one instead of playing for their season Tuesday night.

Wall and Beal are going to win many more games together with much of the cast around them. There is no window closing for a franchise that had championship designs this season.

But there is a harsh realization that the Wizards, who seemed so poised to make noise beyond mid-May for the first time in 35 years, are not ready to take the gigantic step from playoff team to serious contender.

They are much more than happy to be here, but the team Walsh saw as one with something to prove, like the Pacers before all the success that breeds drama, has not yet fully arrived.

The Wizards enter Game 5 with a sense of victimhood about the referees, but they have no one to blame but themselves for how this series got away from them. Washington reverted back to the team Wittman saw blow 11 double-digit leads in the second half during the regular season, the most of any team in the playoffs.

One week, that’s all it took. One franchise can put any plans of blowing up the roster on ice — if that’s even what the Pacers had in mind. Another needs to reevaluate and be glad for a decent postseason run for the first time in five years.

“I hope we can get it together,” Walsh said before I left his office last week. “We’ll see.”

He saw, all right. He saw Wall’s postseason inexperience catch up with him and the re-emergence of a contender from Indiana, which is now just one win from returning to face the Heat again for all the marbles in the East.

It really is wild how quickly it happened.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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