INDIANAPOLIS — It already may be time for the Indiana Pacers to rethink their position on the Washington Wizards. The fun the Pacers expected to have against the playoff upstarts rarely materialized Monday night during Game 1 of a 102-96 loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
After finally closing out the pesky Atlanta Hawks in the previous round, the Pacers all but banged their chests and declared that facing the Wizards would be a blast. Not only do the Wizards play the conventional style the Pacers prefer, Coach Frank Vogel and players eagerly explained, but the Pacers had an extra bounce in their step following their impressive close-out victory over the Hawks.
But their swagger quickly disappeared while the Wizards set the tone from the opening tip to the final buzzer here at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Just as they did against the Chicago Bulls, the Wizards — led by Coach Randy Wittman off the court and John Wall on it — shocked a higher-seeded team while striking the first blow in a best-of-seven race. And the most remarkable thing about the Wizards’ victory was where it occurred.
To say the Wizards struggle a tad in Indiana is akin to saying Trevor Ariza shoots three-pointers fairly well. In their previous 12 games in the state, the Wizards were winless. This season? The Wizards lost twice by a combined 47 points. For the Wizards, none of that mattered. They’re on a roll and couldn’t care less about yesterday.
Wittman doesn’t engage in he-said-he-said stuff. He has taught the Wizards to focus on keeping their house in order. Let opponents do all the talking, Wittman tells players, and the Wizards will make their statements on the court.
“We’ve got to just worry about us. That’s a hard enough problem in itself sometimes,” Wittman said after the team’s seventh consecutive road victory, including the regular season.
“I just don’t want them thinking about what Indiana has to worry about. I want them to worry about how we have to play each game. I want them to worry about what we have to do tonight to win. The ‘we’ is the most important thing.”
The Wizards have been unified and in sync throughout an eye-opening postseason stretch that simply keeps getting better. Still, the Pacers figured they were in a great position to stop the Wizards’ momentum.
The Hawks rely on three-point shooting and small lineups by NBA standards. Conversely, with big men Nene and Marcin Gortat, the Wizards have a strong inside presence. The Pacers always prefer a slugfest.
The Hawks often ran circles (literally) around center Roy Hibbert, who went into a deep funk that finally ended Saturday during Game 7, in which he produced 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots. “This next round is his round,” Pacers all-star forward Paul George said of Hibbert.
Game 1 wasn’t Hibbert’s game. He disappeared again in another zero-point, zero-rebound performance. Hibbert also went scoreless in Games 5 and 6 against Atlanta. “I’m always surprised when our guys don’t play well,” Vogel said.
Well, then Vogel should be in a perpetual state of shock about Hibbert. Too slow to keep pace with the Hawks’ big men, Hibbert was a shrinking violet against Nene and Gortat. They ran things on the interior as the Wizards outrebounded the Pacers 53-36.
On offensive rebounds, the Wizards had a 17-6 edge. Nene scored 15 points. Gortat had a double-double with 12 points and 15 rebounds. The Wizards also got great bench production after Wittman dusted off Drew Gooden. Early in the third, Nene picked up his third and fourth fouls in a span of 16 seconds.
Wittman turned to Gooden, who played sparingly in the Chicago series after getting the Wizards out of a jam during the regular season in place of the injured Nene. Gooden delivered again, scoring 12 points and grabbing 13 rebounds , including a game-high seven on offense in 18 minutes. Vogel was impressed. “They won the physicality battle,” he said. “We’ve got to rebound better than we did [on] both ends of the court.”
The Pacers also have to figure out what to do against Ariza and Bradley Beal. The long-range sharpshooters torched the Pacers’ defense. Ariza was perfect on his six three-pointers, helped the Wizards get off to a great start and scored 22 points.
Beal took the lead role in the second half. After the Pacers pulled within 82-76 with about seven minutes remaining in the game, Beal connected on consecutive three-pointers to help push the lead back to 12. He scored a game-high 25 points.
“He’s growing up,” Wittman said. “A lot of moxie.”
The same could be said about the entire Wizards team. Maybe someone should have told the Pacers before they expressed so much confidence about this matchup. This much is certain: The Pacers definitely know what they’re up against now.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.