The Miami Heat awaits, the target no longer abstract.
The team the Pacers have aimed at since last June is resting comfortably in the Eastern Conference Finals after eliminating Brooklyn in five games Wednesday night. While Miami has lost just once in cruising through two playoff series, the Pacers have turned their walks in the park into death marches.
Miami has taken care of business, held up its end of the bargain.
Will the Pacers?
After blowing their first chance to close out the Wizards, losing 102-79 in Game 5 Tuesday, the Pacers’ second chance comes tonight in Game 6 in Washington.
“I’m hopeful we’re going to respond really well,” Frank Vogel said. “I think we’re going to play a much better basketball game, a much tougher basketball game. I think we won three games in a row against these guys and hopefully we didn’t let our guard down but Game 5 was a reminder of what they’re capable of.”
Neither team has done much with homecourt advantage. The Wizards lost Games 2 and 3 in Verizon Center, where they’re 1-4 in the postseason (compared to 5-1 on the road). The Pacers dropped Games 1 and 5 in both the first and second rounds and are 3-4 in Indianapolis (compared to 4-1 on the road).
“We just play better when we know our backs are against the wall, we know it’s just us out there,” Paul George said. “It brings us closer for whatever reason and we play with energy and we feed off the other crowd. That’s the only thing I can put a finger on.”
“Everyone knows how we play at home,” said the Wizards’ Marcin Gortat. “Quite honestly we struggle at home. I have a feeling that we’ll feel the pressure at home on Thursday. We have a young team and we need to play the best game or our lives.”
The challenges for the Pacers are clear:
>> Contain the tempo without falling into the trap of playing slowly;
>> Neutralize John Wall;
The first two go hand-in-hand, because Wall is the fuel for the Wizards’ high-octane offensive engine. In their two wins, his aggression in pushing the pace dictated the flow. He did not shoot well in Game 1, but gained his confidence with 27 points in Game 5.
The Pacers, on the other hand, frequently walked into their offense, initiating their plays with too little time on the shot clock to run them through to completion. The result was a high volume of forced shots that led to a poor percentage (.390).
Paul George’s production has the best barometer of the Pacers’ offensive flow. In their two losses, he averaged 16.5 points on 28 percent shooting. In the three wins, the numbers jumped to 24.3 points and 48 percent.
“We can always take our time within our sets but we’ve got to get into our sets quick,” George said. “That’s what we didn’t do (in Game 5). A lot of possessions, we just threw away because we were starting offense with 13, 14 on the clock, and then it was tough for individuals to make plays. We’ve got to do a better job with that.”
The Wizards have thoroughly dominated the boards in their two victories, including a historic 62-23 trouncing Tuesday, the widest margin in a playoff game since 1971. They outrebounded the Pacers by 17 in Game 1, with the offensive glass the tipping point.
In two wins, the Wizards have averaged 17.5 offensive rebounds and 16 second-chance points; in three losses, the averages are 9.3 offensive boards and 9.0 second-chance points.
“We didn’t match their physicality but a lot of their rebounds were defensive breakdowns,” Vogel said. “We didn’t have a sharp defensive assignment game and a lot of times when that happens you get into chain reactions where even if you force a miss they’ve got people free on the glass. That’s not about physicality, that’s about execution.”
There is, of course, one other area that may be the most critical, but it should be one that doesn’t need mentioning. Effort, particularly in the playoffs, should be assumed, but that hasn’t been the case from the Pacers.
“I thought they played harder than us (Tuesday),” Vogel said. “You’re in the elite eight, so to speak, of the NBA playoffs and if you don’t play harder than the team you’re playing against, you’re going to lose, period.”
Having given away their best chance, the Pacers must now seize their second if they want to have any chance at all with the next.