Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Wizards and Indiana Pacers — a logistical nightmare last week because of a certain pop diva’s concert commitment at Verizon Center and a mirage for a reeling team earlier this week — has arrived.
The Wizards kept their season alive Tuesday with an emphatic 102-79 victory over the Pacers in Game 5 . But if they want to take another step toward becoming just the ninth NBA team, including the 1979 Bullets, to come back from a three-games-to-one deficit to win a best-of-seven playoff series, the Wizards will have to overcome the mysterious little monsters that have plagued them at Verizon.
“We can’t get excited. We have to win at home, and everybody knows how we play at home,” said Marcin Gortat, who in Game 5 scored a playoff career-high 31 points and grabbed 16 rebounds to lead the most dominant rebounding performance in the playoffs in more than 40 years. “Quite honestly, we struggle at home. It’s definitely going to be a tough game. I’m glad we brought the series back to D.C. Our fans definitely deserve that. They’ve supported us the whole season.”
The Wizards are 5-1 on the road this postseason, the best mark of any team in the playoffs, and set a franchise mark for margin of victory in a road playoff game in Game 5. Washington, however, has been nearly as awful at home as it has been good on the road. The Wizards are 1-3 at Verizon Center in the playoffs, with the lone win coming in Game 4 against Chicago.
Despite those shortcomings, the Wizards believe they can fend off elimination again and upset the top-seeded Pacers, who lead three games to two.
“Definitely, we feel like we can finish this,” backup big man Drew Gooden said of the Pacers. “We know, you guys know and they know this series could be the other way around, with us leading. We are still confident.”
The three home losses this postseason have featured meltdowns and malfunctions: Nene getting ejected for head-butting and placing his hands around the neck of Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler; the team setting a franchise record for scoring futility, regular season or playoffs, with a measly 63 points in Game 3 against Indiana; then blowing a 19-point second-half lead in a loss two nights later.
“I just think sometimes, you relax. You get in your comfort zone,” Trevor Ariza said. “And when you’re on the road everybody is against you. You’re fighting all the elements. We got to keep our same mentality at home that we do on the road. We’re cornered, so we have to fight ourselves out the corner. If we keep the same intensity, same mentality, we give ourselves a chance.”
In the regular season the Wizards had identical home and road records (22-19), and suffered some of their most embarrassing losses of the season at Verizon Center. Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston, which finished, respectively, with the worst, second-worst and tied for the fourth-worst record in the NBA, all claimed victories in Washington.
“At this point in time, no, I don’t,” Coach Randy Wittman said when asked if he thinks the limited success at home in the playoffs is in the heads of his players. “I think when you’re in a battle like we’re in, the focus has just got to be, whether we’re on the road or at home, of playing the way we have to play. I don’t want them looking back on anything. What might have been or what could be. The bottom line is, it’s 3-2 and we’ve got to win two games.”
John Wall’s breakthrough playoff performance Tuesday against a team that had him momentarily questioning his talents has given the Wizards some faith they can complete the improbable comeback. Held in check for most of the playoffs, Wall scored 27 points on Tuesday. His 17 points in the third quarter not only singlehandedly outscored the Pacers but also surpassed his scoring total from each of the previous four games.
“I just took advantage of all the shots I was getting through all the other four games, and I just thank God I was able to knock them down,” Wall said. “I knew that our season was on the line. Either our season is over or it’s not. I just wanted to come in totally locked in on both ends of the floor.”
Wall credited a conversation with Wittman for helping him snap out of his funk.
“I told him something that he probably never wanted me to say. I was like, ‘I’m frustrated. I don’t know how to get out this slump. I don’t know what to do,’ ” Wall said. “And he was like, ‘I never want to hear you say that ever again, because I know how confident you are in yourself and I know how competitive you are.’ To hear that from your coach, from somebody who’s been here for four seasons and riding with me through the thick and thin of things and me having his back is pretty exciting.”
Having an aggressive and assertive Wall directing the team works in the Wizards’ favor, but Wittman believes his team can play better. The Wizards outrebounded the Pacers, 62-23 in Game 5, tied for the third-largest rebounding margin in playoff history, but only four players scored in double figures. Nene was held to four points, his lowest-scoring game of the playoffs, after scoring only eight in Game 3.
Thursday “is going to be a different story. We’re going to have to have guys step up and play the way that they’re capable of playing,” Wittman said. Game 6 “might be Nene in that situation. But everybody’s got to be focused on doing their job and doing it the best they can. . . . We don’t have any more room for error, but if we play our way, we can beat these guys. They don’t want this to end on Thursday. We’ve just got to now move on.”