What do we call the reason for these Indiana Pacers staying afloat despite the biggest end-of-season collapse in recent memory? The Eastern Conference.
The lack of experience within the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal hasn’t been a deal breaker for the Washington Wizards, but it’s not helping them survive the storm of Indiana’s defense. Nor would the Chicago Bulls’ offense, which is purely comical and repugnant 90 percent of the time, be able to make this Semifinal matchup a tasteful one.
God help Larry Bird if these Pacers, the team that caused its fans to bite their nails and hang their heads in disgust through April, were thrown into the Western Conference mix. Any first round team in the West would have been favored over Indiana in reality, despite what the seeding entails.
Although just two weeks ago, Frank Vogel was on the hot seat and Roy Hibbert was at the tail end of jokes, the Pacers’ defensive aptitude has made a sighting. Game 3′s win over the Wizards in The Verizon Center was one of the more commanding defensive efforts of the season, topped off with an absurd amount of bad luck for Washington’s shooters.
The day Wall, Beal, and Nene combine for 15-of-46 field goals again, is the day San Antonio finally lets their age catch up to them and become irrelevant in the title hunt. Game 4 is going to be a tougher story, but credit the Pacers for coming out with an aggressive, greedy mentality in Friday’s 85-63 victory.
If they don’t already, Indiana needs to understand the opportunity they have in front of them. The finish line is the NBA Finals, and there are still two pit stops remaining. Four months ago, Vogel wouldn’t have guessed it would be Washington breathing down their neck before Miami came stomping towards Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the East Finals. If anything, the preseason consensus was that a Derrick Rose-led Bulls team would interrupt the league’s biggest rivalry today, between the Pacers and Heat.
The worst route Indiana can take in this upcoming week is to draw out this second round series, and potentially head for another seven-game war. Despite the onslaught Miami released on Brooklyn in the first two meetings in South Beach, that series experienced a momentum swing on Saturday night with the Nets’ 14-point win to cut the series to a 2-1 Heat lead. It has all the makings of a six or seven game series, as I can’t imagine Brooklyn’s star power and depth falling into a grave and dropping two straight again. That helps Indiana for their series, and should motivate them to close out Washington in five games.
A win on Sunday over Washington would demoralize the Wizards, whether they admit it or not, knowing they gave up any home-court chance they had. Heading back to Indianapolis for Game 5, sealing the deal would allow for the rest Indiana will need before round three between LeBron James and Paul George. Miami has taken the last two playoff meetings between the two, so why not do all you can — ousting Washington early, gaining rest and preparation time — to give the Heat your best swing.
It’s easier said than done.
Washington’s frontcourt isn’t full of slouches, and they don’t give two cents about Hibbert’s recent success (42 points in the last two games after scoring zero in Game 1). What still serves as the most substantial game plan technique for Indiana is to make the Wizards beat you from the inside, still providing lock down defense on the shooters, from the outside and mid-range.
After lapsing over and over on Trevor Ariza in Game 1, Paul George (in the clip above) illustrates why he’s the best perimeter defender in the game next to Tony Allen, and will be in the top two or three of Defensive Player of the Year honors for years to come. Vogel has switched George onto Beal, and it’s worked perfectly, for the most part. As shown, his length makes it a tough day’s work for Beal even on his loved step-back jumper, as George forces him into a long two with 12 seconds left on the shot clock. George’s ability to fight through screens (although Nene’s is relatively weak here), ranks up there with the best in today’s game, and notice how quick he’s able to change directions with Beal. Must be tough for a 20-year-old kid to put up with this.
It’s what Indiana lives by, forcing guys to take contested, mid-range shots. When you aren’t playing Damian Lillard, it works.
Overlooking the fact that George bought the 3-point fake by Ariza and allowed a blow-by, what you’ll see above is one of the better defensive sequences of the second round. Indiana closes out on shooters, all while collapsing in the paint when Wall penetrates twice, cutting off anything easy. Eventually, the ball is kicked to Beal in the left corner, where he has to make a decision with less than five seconds on the shot clock. David West, the veteran, knows what’s coming and that his teammate (Stephenson) will be hit with the Gortat screen. You can’t ask for a more solid contest on Beal’s shot, without fouling him. The Pacers slowed Washington down, forced them to use all of the clock, and rattled the team’s best shooter. Definition of beautiful as it pertains to defense.
There were some instances, as we see here, where Beal was able to find success coming off screens. It’s what the Wizards’ entire offense is predicated on; using screen rolls with Gortat and Nene, creating space for their shooters early and then using their big men later. During the regular season, nobody attempted more mid-range jumpers than Washington, and we have seen the same pattern early in this series. Here, George is caught off guard with the hard Gortat screen, and Ian Mahinmi isn’t coming out that far to contest. Thus, it puts pressure on George to stay true to his word of being the best two-way player in the game, and it asks a lot of him to be able to recover. When Beal has that much space, it’s dropping.
Beal started off Game 3 just 1-of-9 from the field, but I wholeheartedly believe some of the nerves kicked in, mixed with the realization that one of the youngest back courts in the league is hosting a second round game with an actual chance to make a title run. It’ll get to you. However, as mature as Beal already is for his age, it’s not realistic to expect the struggles over and over.
Additionally, when Indiana needed to be the inside anchors they’re known for being, they did that as well:
Beal, again with the shot clock dwindling, decides that maybe if he gets to the line or slithers inside for a layup, the shooter’s mentality will kick in. Instead, he meets the mammoth. The Pacers call him Hibbert, and he showed Beal why the paint is the true “Area 55.”
For any honest chance against the conference’s best athlete, player, and dynamic force (LeBron James), Indiana needs to revert back to games 2 and 3, and not allow Washington to hang around. Eventually, it will be the Wizards’ time to push through their own race for the No. 1 seed, but the talent level on defense is overwhelming in this series, as it was in the Pacers’ first round matchup.
I’m getting tired of the “Pacers hang their hat on the defensive side of the ball” statements. No, they hang this series, their season, future, max-contract stars, and team pride on defense. It can’t take one night off. For better or worse, that’s the only way this team reaches mid-June.