INDIANAPOLIS — The Washington Wizards’ dominance on the road in these playoffs was bound to end at some point. Indiana Pacers center and former Georgetown star Roy Hibbert is too big and too talented to continue playing as poorly as he had been. And, eventually, the shooting struggles of playoff neophyte John Wall were going to cost his team.
On Wednesday night, everything that had worked in the Wizards’ favor suddenly swung the opposite direction. The result was an 86-82 loss that sent the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals series back to Washington tied at one game apiece. The loss at Bankers Life Fieldhouse snapped the Wizards’ seven-game road winning streak — including the first four games this postseason — dating from April 4.
“You always feel as though you can win every game, but we got one. The series is tied now. Now it’s the first one to get three more,” Bradley Beal said after scoring 17 points. “We’re not down in this locker room. We’re still confident. We’ll take this and move on.”
Wall said the Wizards wanted to be “greedy” and win both games, but Hibbert wouldn’t allow it. Waking up from a months-long slumber, the 7-foot-2 Hibbert scored 28 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked two shots . Marcin Gortat tried to match Hibbert and led the Wizards with a team-high 21 points and 11 rebounds . But Wall had his worst game of the playoffs, finishing with six points on 2-of-13 shooting .
Throughout this postseason, Wall had managed to direct his team to wins even when his shots weren’t falling. His repeated misses in Game 2 were too much to overcome in a low possession game that favored the Pacers’ deliberate tempo.
“I didn’t play great. I feel like I lost the game for my team,” said Wall, who has shot 32.7 percent (34 of 104 ) in seven postseason games. “The criticism is going to be on me if we win or lose, and I take the blame. That’s what I’m supposed to do as a point guard.”
The Wizards’ unflappable composure in the final minutes of close games on the road had been one of the startling developments of this postseason, especially in Chicago, where they swept all three games. Their focus and determination had given them an edge when the game got tight.
But that hunger for the home run came back to bite them in the final three minutes Wednesday. With the Wizards trailing 82-79, Wall took two ill-advised three-pointers early in the shot clock, squandering some offensive rebounds and playing hurried instead of running a set.
Later, Wall attempted to drive to the basket and dropped the ball right in the chest of Pacers point guard George Hill. Lance Stephenson then knocked down a long jumper and played to an adoring audience.
“They beat us,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “But still, our guys gave ourselves a chance to win. I think they know we can play better than we did. But in those situations, when you don’t play the way you’re capable of playing. . . . That’s how you evolve in the playoffs. I was proud of them for that.”
The Pacers gave Beal different looks on defense to prevent him from taking over as he did the previous game. All-star swingman Paul George and Stephenson split time guarding the second-year shooting guard and used physical tactics on both ends of the floor to fluster Beal. While fighting for an offensive rebound on one possession, Stephenson grabbed Beal by the arm and slung him to the floor.
“Pushing, shoving, grabbing, scratching, whatever it was. They did pretty much everything,” Beal said of the Pacers’ defense. “That’s the playoffs. I’m not going to complain about it. I’m just going to be physical back.”
Indiana also shut down Trevor Ariza, limiting him to just six points after he hit six three-pointers in Game 1. The Wizards shot just 23.8 percent (5 of 21) from three-point range, the lowest percentage of any NBA team this postseason.
Ariza was effective on the defensive end, however, keeping George quiet through the first three quarters. George scored five of his 11 points in the final period, pushing past Ariza to drive the lane for a huge two-handed dunk that put Indiana ahead, 80-77.
Hibbert had zero points and zero rebounds in Game 1, continuing some confounding struggles in the postseason that fueled rumors about possible off-court friction between Hibbert and George. George addressed the speculation on his Twitter account Tuesday, denying any problems while posting an old photograph of him fishing with Hibbert and Hill.
Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said before the game that his players have been laughing about the supposed problems within the locker room. The day before, Vogel blamed himself for not getting Hibbert enough touches on offense. Indiana made a concerted effort to get Hibbert involved Wednesday night. After he won the opening tip, Hibbert had a short jumper and a three-point play to get the Pacers started on a 7-0 run.
With his college coach, John Thompson III, and agent, David Falk, sitting baseline, Hibbert had 17 points by halftime, surpassing his previous high for a game this postseason (13). Hibbert also was an intimidating presence on the defensive end as he shut down Wall’s drives to the basket.
“Obviously, nobody expected he’s going to go off like that,” Gortat said. “We knew he was going to get some touches, and he was going to come ready to play. Nobody expected he’s going to go for 28. The most important thing, for me right now, is to make sure he doesn’t come back with the same effort. Hopefully next game, he’s going to come back to his earlier performance.”
The Wizards are hoping they will do the same.