The Indiana Pacers survived. The Washington Wizards thrived. The two will meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals, starting Monday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The much-maligned Pacers needed seven games to dispatch the under-.500 Atlanta Hawks, but did ultimately get the job done with a 12-point home win on Saturday evening.
The two teams have never met in the postseason and Indiana has owned this series in recent history. The Pacers won two of three this season against Washington, both at home, but the dominance extends far past the 2013-14 campaign. Indiana has won 11 of the last 13 matchups and 15 of the last 19.
The Pacers needed all seven games to eliminate the Hawks, but the Wizards have been done their first-round matchup with the Bulls since Tuesday. Their first playoff appearance since 2008 netted a 4-1 victory over Chicago. The Wizards are the fifth seed in the conference and advanced for the first time since 2005.
Defense is Indiana’s calling card. The Pacers finished second in the NBA in opponents’ scoring during the regular season and first in opponents’ field-goal percentage.
The Wizards weren’t shabby, either. They tied for eighth in the league in fewest points allowed and actually rank first in that category so far during the postseason.
Washington scored more than the Pacers during the regular season, but the series could come down to defensive battles, especially up front.
Indiana’s Roy Hibbert finished second to Chicago’s Joakim Noah in Defensive Player of the Year voting, but the Atlanta series took a toll. Hibbert was benched during most of the crucial minutes as matchup problems were compounded by serious offensive woes.
Hibbert responded with a solid Game 7, scoring 13 points, to go along with seven rebounds and five blocked shots.
Washington played fantastically against the Bulls, propelled some nights by their electrifying young back court of Wall and Bradley Beal, and other nights by their veteran big men, Nene and Marcin Gortat.
The question for this relatively inexperienced team in terms of postseason play is how will they respond to being dormant for so long?
The Wizards won’t be intimidated playing in Indiana, despite being winless in their last 12 trips there, a span dating back to April of 2007. Washington took all three road contests in the series against the Bulls.
BACKCOURT EDGE: WIZARDS
George Hill and Lance Stephenson both played decently in the Atlanta series. Stephenson is such an all-purpose talent, but the onus in this series will fall on Hill. He didn’t play well against the Hawks’ Jeff Teague, forcing Vogel to switch Paul George on him, and Teague’s quickness pales in comparison to Wall’s. Hill will have to defend at a higher level in order for Indiana to advance.
Wall and Beal may already be one of the league’s best back courts, despite the fact that Wall is 23 and Beal is 20. Against Chicago, the league’s best defensive unit in terms of scoring, Wall averaged 18.8 points and 6.8 assists. Beal led the Wizards with 19.8 points on 45 percent shooting from long range.
FRONTCOURT EDGE: PACERS
George elevated his game in the last postseason, then took an even bigger leap during the first half of this season. Then, he tailed off pretty dramatically, but when the cards were on the table, George produced. He scored 30 points and pulled down 11 boards in the series clincher, but made bigger baskets in Game 6 to force the finale. He may once again be asked to switch to cover one of Washington’s back court members as he did versus Teague. David West was another massive factor in carrying the Pacers this far. He was the man Vogel went to late in Game 6 and, while he only managed four points on Saturday, he grabbed 13 rebounds. West is a big-game hunter who will relish the challenge of Washington’s bigs. It all comes back to Hibbert. He will have a bigger role in this series because Pero Antic of Atlanta is more of a 3- point shooter, thus, it took Hibbert away from his strength as a rim protector. Washington’s Marcin Gortat won’t be chucking them up from beyond the arc, so Hibbert will be more at home.
Nene was a revelation in the first round, although he missed Game 4 to suspension after a brouhaha with Chicago’s Jimmy Butler. Nene averaged 17.8 points on 55 percent shooting, all the while battling Noah, the Defensive Player of the Year. Gortat didn’t do much offensively against the Bulls, but he’s a steady presence in the paint and can score in a variety of ways. Trevor Ariza is such an underrated part of the Wizards’ attack. He posted 15.6 ppg versus Chicago and shot 46 percent from behind the 3-point line. Ariza is a hustle guy as well, so he might present a challenge to George.
BENCH EDGE: PACERS
Neither bench was very productive during the regular season and Indiana’s second unit shifted a bit during the Hawks series. Luis Scola and Evan Turner, arguably the Pacers best subs, didn’t play in Games 6 or 7, both Indiana wins. C.J. Watson, Ian Mahinmi and Chris Copeland were the reserves for Indiana, but Vogel may go back to Turner and Scola in the second round. It’s hard to imagine the trio of Watson/Mahinmi/Copeland providing much scoring.
The Wizards’ bench, which finished 29th in scoring during the regular season, totaled 15.5 ppg versus the Bulls. Trevor Booker, Martell Webster and the venerable Andre Miller saw the bulk of minutes and did an admirable, if unforgettable job against Chicago. Drew Gooden could give Washington a spark.
COACHING EDGE: PACERS
Vogel is 22-20 all-time in the postseason. He enjoyed a brilliant regular season until the final month and speculation abounded that his job was in jeopardy should he not guide the Pacers to a first-round win. The pressure is not any lower as expectations were for a date with the Miami Heat in the conference finals. Vogel’s tweaking of the lineup for the final two games led to wins. That’s all you can ask for.
Wittman is in his first postseason as a coach, but he’s done a great job with the Wizards this season. Washington believes in itself and Wittman instills confidence. His first-round upset of the Bulls showed something. Wittman re- inserted Nene into the starting lineup and the move paid dividends immediately.
SERIES EDGE: PACERS IN 6
It’s easy to have no confidence in the Pacers and be high on the Wizards. Indiana was awful at the end of the season and looked bad at times versus the Hawks. Washington had a relatively easy time of it against the Bulls.
The Pacers match up much better with the Wizards than the Hawks. Atlanta spread the floor versus Indy and took Hibbert away from the paint. Gortat and Nene, formidable no doubt, will keep Hibbert in the lane and that benefits the Pacers.
Offensively, neither team will light the scoreboard up, but George is the brightest star in the series. Indiana is trying to live up to its hype all season and there’s an apparent tightness. With one series under their belts, maybe the Pacers don’t have to worry quite so much about upsets and disappointments.