Pacers, suddenly confident again, like their chances against the Wizards in Round 2

Jason Reid
Columnist May 4

The Indiana Pacers are eager to prove they’re all the way back. It won’t be easy against the Wizards.

Well-rested and confident, the Wizards also have reason for optimism entering Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals here Monday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Still, the Pacers like what they see.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

“We feel [the Wizards are] more our style,” Pacers all-star forward Paul George said. “They play big . . . and that’s how we play. We’re ready for those guys.”

After being pushed to seven games by the Atlanta Hawks, who shot three-pointers as if going for two violated NBA rules, the Pacers welcome facing a conventional opponent. The East’s No. 1 seed became unglued in the final two months of the regular season (including the playoffs, the Pacers are 16-16 since March 1). Indiana was on the brink of playoff elimination late in Game 6 against Atlanta.

By rallying to win their last two games, though, the Pacers clearly regained confidence. And after remembering who they are, the Pacers should win this series.

George delivered as expected in Game 7. Spark plug guard Lance Stephenson played his role well. Even ineffective big man Roy Hibbert finally awoke from his slumber. The Pacers showed some swagger.

The Wizards displayed a lot in needing only five games to close out the tough-minded Chicago Bulls. John Wall and Bradley Beal reminded us they possess as much ability as any back-court tandem. Trevor Ariza was typically steady on both ends of the court. Talented big men Nene and Marcin Gortat were great together.

Pacers Coach Frank Vogel believes “the Wizards have the best young back court in the NBA.” He’s correct.

“They’ve got great front-court players,” Vogel continued. “They protect the rim. They guard and shoot the three extremely well.

“It was very, very impressive what they did to Chicago, which was one of the hottest teams in the second half of the season. We’re going to have to play a great series to beat them.”

That’s not merely politically correct coachspeak. Vogel knows the gritty Bulls don’t quit.

The Wizards weren’t satisfied with simply ending their playoff drought at six seasons. Relying on inside-outside balance, the Wizards won a postseason series for the first time in nine seasons. Even if the Wizards’ postseason fun ends against the Pacers, owner Ted Leonsis should be pleased his franchise has made a huge move forward.

This isn’t the same group that lost two of three to the Pacers during the regular season series. The Wizards’ lone win was a 91-78 blowout March 28 at Verizon Center. Of course, that’s old news.

For the Wizards to win two playoff series in a row, they’ll probably have to slow George, who averaged 23.9 points in the first round. He scored at least 24 points in six games and had 30 points in the closeout win. In Game 7, George’s success shooting midrange jumpers was the best part of the Pacers’ offense.

“When he gets his shot rolling, just because of his length [George is listed at 6 feet 9], his athleticism . . . he’s a tough guy to cover,” Atlanta guard Kyle Korver said. “He showed up in a big game.”

Stephenson did, too. At times during the Pacers’ late-season slide, Stephenson, who can become an unrestricted free agent after the season, mainly seemed interested in scoring.

The past two seasons, the Pacers emerged as a strong NBA Finals contender in part because Stephenson did many things well. On Saturday, he was great on defense, got the ball to teammates in good scoring position and was all over the court. The Pacers and their fans loved it.

To others, Stephenson can be very irritating. Wall and Beal refused to take the bait when Chicago’s players tried to rattle them. They’ll have to continue to play it cool.

Nene served a one-game suspension for mixing it up with Chicago forward Jimmy Butler. No other strategy seemed to work against Nene, who has to be smarter against the Pacers. Nene and Gortat figure to be challenged by forward David West and Hibbert, who was a mess for most of the Pacers’ previous series.

The Hawks’ big men were too quick for the former Georgetown standout, who failed to score in Games 5 and 6. But from the start of Game 7, Hibbert was active. He contributed 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots.

“Not only was he locked in because of the start he had offensively, but we know when Roy is locked in offensively, his defense is off the charts,” George said. “That’s when he becomes special. . . . This next round is his round.”

In order to feel good about their season, the Pacers have more rounds to go. At least it seems they’re moving in the right direction again.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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