Wait, which squad was supposed to be Team Tumult, with players mired in their own heads, unable to get their game or chemistry together?
The more they chipped paint off the rim with their errant shots, the more the groans descended from on high, the more the mission began to crystallize for the Washington Wizards.
After signing over their rights to the rim against Indiana and putting on the most putrid offensive display in their not-exactly storied history, they aren’t playing Game 4 on Sunday night at Verizon Center as much as they are playing for their season.
“We had the worst offensive night,” Nene said. “Looks like we tried to miss shots.”
Oh, Sunday isn’t everything. Teams have recovered from 3-1 deficits enough — eight times in the NBA playoffs — to offer hope in case Sunday, too, becomes an unmitigated eyesore. But it felt like Washington went down further than merely 2-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday night before a very disenchanted sellout mob on Abe Pollin Way.
It felt like Roy Hibbert transferred his mammoth confidence loss and his cavalier ways around the rim to every Wizard, including his counterparts in the middle, Nene and Marcin Gortat, who were no match for Big Roy, David West and the Pacers’ front line.
They couldn’t make free throws (11 for 21), three-pointers (4 for 16), heck, layups. Bradley Beal warmed up late, but he couldn’t find any rhythm for much of the first three quarters. Wall had his moments running the floor and changing the energy at times, but the Pacers used their similar strategy from Game 2, daring the young brick mason to launch from the perimeter while they packed the middle.
Here was a major concern for anyone in the visiting locker room after Game 2: The Wizards weren’t gleeful to be going back home 1-1, but they certainly weren’t really distraught over losing a golden opportunity to go up 2-0 on the road at a moment they really could have put a psychological grip on the Pacers.
And as the best-of-seven series moves past the midway point Sunday, it’s clear the pendulum has swung.
The ball movement for the Pacers was much better than in the series’ first two games, more crisp and precise and purposeful. Paul George re-established himself as the best player going in the series with Hibbert.
The Pacers’ two all-stars combined for 37 points and 13 rebounds .
The Wizards combined for nothing — nothing but unsightly basketball in front of their first second-round playoff crowd since 2005.
The Polish Machine malfunctioned. Gortat seemed to sign a nonaggression pact with the basket. He and Nene missed 16 of the 21 shots.
Trevor Ariza kept them in it early, but no one came off the bench and gave them a special performance of any sort.
I still think the Wizards have a nicer, more balanced team. I don’t think they are the tougher team in this series anymore. Wherever that mental and physical fortitude went against Chicago, Randy Wittman would pay good money to get it back right now.
It’s not like they played dead or quit at any point. But for much of the evening they played offense like five headless chickens, running every which way and not having synchronization to their patterns or flow.
It’s not surprising the No. 1 seed finally played like a No. 1 seed in the second half. It is surprising that, in just two short games, Washington has been reduced to a slog of a half-court team with just a handful of fast-break points and no big 15-4 runs to punctuate its offensive balance.
Maybe the Wizards need to become the victims of vicious gossip and rumors, like the Pacers. Maybe they need an entire state doubting their ability to get it together again, like Indiana had almost given up on its Pacers.
Maybe they need an enigmatic big man like Big Roy to get fed up being told he is mentally fragile and has lost all hope of returning to his domineering form.
Maybe they just need a couple of shots to fall in Game 4 and all of a sudden they go back to Indiana 2-2, allowing them to begin feeling good about themselves again.
The team that handled its own prosperity so well in the first round now trails for the first time in a playoff series and is less than 48 hours from possibly going down 3-1 on its home floor.
This breakout season deserves better than that. It deserves redemption — and perhaps even a chance at Miami in the conference finals.
It deserves 2-2 with some momentum heading into a seminal Game 5 on Tuesday night. It deserves more than 63 points and all that flat-out ugly offense.
Unless these Pacers have suddenly recaptured their swagger for good, this is still a very beatable team with not as many skilled offensive pieces.
Now, that doesn’t have anything to do with ruggedness and resolve. If the Pacers have more of that, too, like they did Friday night . . . never mind.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
More on the Wizards:
D.C. Sports Bog: Best and worst of Game 3