Technically, it was only one game.
In reality, it was much, much more.
This was the chance to bury the Washington Wizards while also laying to rest the doubts, internal and external, about the Pacers’ credibility as a championship contender.
This was the chance to silence the steady stream of noise about the team’s problems real and imagined, past, present and future.
This was the chance to take care of business home, get some much-needed rest, and be fully prepared for what would await in the Eastern Conference Finals.
With the one game, one horrifically inept, lifeless, and pointless performance, all of that was lost.
Wizards 62, Pacers 23.
No, that was not the final score, but those were the numbers that told the story of Game 5 Tuesday night, a 102-79 Washington rout. The Wizards outrebounded the Pacers by 39, the widest margin in a playoff game in more than 40 years and tied for the third-widest ever.
Thus the team with road-court advantage (Washington on the road this postseason) returns home for Game 6, still trailing (3-2) but feeling much better about itself than the team in the other locker room.
“We didn’t show up to play, man,” said David West. “I don’t know if we thought we were going to just come in here and these guys were going to roll over but they’re a very good team, guys with a lot of pride and they just played on a different level than we did all night and it showed up on the glass. I just don’t know where we were tonight.
“We’ve got to be able to handle these moments. We had no zip. We’ve got to play. If we want this series we’re going to have to take it and we have a very, very tall task ahead of us, going into their building with another opportunity to close it out. We’ve got to come to the fight ready to go from the gate.”
At the end of the third quarter, when things were already decided, Marcin Gortat, who should never be confused with Moses Malone, was outrebounding the Pacers 16-15. Gortat and John Wall were outscoring them 54-52.
Gortat wound up with 31 points, 16 rebounds and 13-for-15 shooting, joining Dwight Howard as the only two players in the past 30 years to produce at least 30 points, 15 boards and 80 percent shooting in a playoff game.
Wall, who hadn’t been a factor for most of the first four games, found himself with 27 points, five assists and five rebounds, and now the Wizards’ best player is alive. Counterpart George Hill, on the other hand, shot 1-for-8 and was constantly battling to get the Pacers into their halfcourt offense with enough time left on the shot clock to run plays all the way through.
“They had a greater will. They played desperation basketball,” said Paul George. “And we played like it was going to be easy tonight.”
George followed up his brilliant 39-point, 12-rebound performance in the Pacers’ Game 4 win with his worst game of this postseason, scoring 15 on 5-for-15 shooting and doing little else: one rebound, two assists, four turnovers.
He and Lance Stephenson have been the team’s leading rebounders in the playoffs, combining for 18 per game. Stephenson came away with zero for the first time all season. Roy Hibbert’s mini-resurgence was steamrolled by Gortat, as the Indiana center managed four points and two boards.
“Two of our main cogs on the defensive glass had one rebound combined tonight,” West said. “It was tough for us.
“They played at their tempo tonight, they sped us up and we weren’t able to really get comfortable. We just didn’t have enough guys on the glass for us to stem the tide in terms of them making runs and hitting shots.”
The Wizards seized momentum with a 17-3 run late in the second quarter, taking a 45-38 lead into the break.
But the Pacers had been so dominant in the third quarters of this series, Wizards coach Randy Wittman joked before the game he planned to just leave his players on the court during intermission. He almost did, sending them back out with nearly 10 minutes left on the clock to do layup lines, “just like we did in elementary school.”
Gortat and Wall combined for 27 in the period as the Wizards outscored the Pacers 31-14 to break it open.
“Everybody’s got to be on board for us to compete and win, everybody’s got to play at the same level of intensity and urgency for us to be successful,” West said. “They just dominated the game and we didn’t have enough fight as a group to compete with this team tonight. Very disappointing because we blew a great opportunity.”
The Pacers may yet win this series but in losing Game 5, they may well have lost their best chance to win the next one.