Preview: Can Hibbert, Pacers return to form vs. Wizards?
Matchup: No. 1 Indiana Pacers (56-26) vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards (44-38)
Season series: Pacers won 2-1
Efficiency rankings: Indiana (22nd offense, 1st defense), Washington (17th offense, 9th defense)
Last round: Pacers beat No. 8 Hawks, 4-3; Wizards beat No. 4 Bulls, 4-1.
The Wizards were one of just three teams to win a first-round playoff series in less than seven games. Bradley Beal and John Wall were unfazed by Chicago's physical brand of defense and center Nene helped Washington control the paint. Role players like Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat, as well as reserves Andre Miller and Trevor Booker, stepped up to provide solid complementary production for a team that -- after winning its first playoff series since 2005 -- has unexpectedly emerged as a threat in the Eastern Conference.
For much of the regular season, it was assumed the Heat had only one true challenger in the East: Indiana. The problem is, the top-seeded Pacers haven't resembled the group that rolled to a 46-13 start in some time. They lost 13 of their final 23 games of the season and needed seven to fight off the eighth-seeded Hawks. The good news for Indiana is that it looked more like its early season self in a 12-point win Saturday. The Pacers also got the better of Washington during the regular season, winning two of three meetings by an average of 23.5 points. And dating to 2007, Indiana has beaten the Wizards in their last 12 meetings at home.
The Case for the Pacers
The Pacers didn't exactly enter the playoffs with a lot of momentum. For a while, it looked like they might relinquish the No. 1 seed they worked so hard to clinch all year. But for as difficult as it was for the Pacers to overcome a sub-.500 team in the first round, let's not forget what this team, at its peak, is capable of. Indiana boasted the top defense in the league, allowing just 96.7 points per 100 possessions. It also has a player, Paul George, who was discussed earlier this season as a top 3 player in the league. And it's important to note that Indiana, unlike Washington, has been here before. A year ago, the Pacers were one game away from bouncing the Heat in the East finals.
While it'd be foolish to think one win signals the Pacers have cured the malaise that has hung over them the for the better part of two months, it's impossible to ignore recent evidence. Not only did Indiana dominate Atlanta in Game 7, Hibbert appeared to emerge from his month-long funk, scoring 13 points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking five shots. Indiana also saw Lance Stephenson (19 points, 14 rebounds, five assists) play his best game of the series. If Stephenson and Hibbert play to their potential, the Pacers will be tough to beat. More importantly, Washington, with its big frontcourt, seems a better matchup for Indiana than the small-ball Hawks.
The Case for the Wizards
The Wizards might have the best backcourt in the East. Wall and Beal's play in the first round was worthy of that title. When Chicago was able to shut down one, the other would take over. While Indiana could throw George and Stephenson at Wall and Beal, that strategy risks freeing Washington's other offensive weapons. Trevor Ariza broke out for 30 points in Game 5, while Nene can attack Hibbert and the Pacers' frontcourt with a devastating array of power moves. Like Indiana, the Wizards pride themselves on playing tough defense, but they proved in the first round that they are not one-dimensional. The Wizards scored 104.8 points per 100 possessions against one of the league's best defenses.
Washington presents a more significant challenge for the Pacers' defense than the Hawks, too. Conversely, Washington also has an antidote for George, who has been Indiana's most consistent source of offense all season, in Trevor Ariza. George shot just 31.3 percent in 96 minutes while Ariza was on the floor this season. The Wizards, who have won eight of their last nine games going back to the regular season, have all the ingredients needed to take down the Pacers: a dynamic backcourt, a formidable frontline and a lockdown defense.
Roy Hibbert. If Hibbert builds off his strong showing in Game 7, the Pacers will once again look the team that was once a consensus championship contender. If Hibbert slips back into the slump that saw him score zero points in Games 5 and 6, the Pacers will be in trouble. At his best, Hibbert is a dominant two-way player who blocks shots, alters countless others and scores effectively. As baffling as his recent funk has been, there's no question Hibbert can win games -- alter a series even -- with his play on both ends. Indiana needs its All-Star big man to play well, or else Nene and Marcin Gortat will have their way on the inside.
Pacers in seven. Washington looked impressive in its first-round win over Chicago, and enters the second round riding a wave of confidence. But the Pacers are deeper, more talented and have succeeded on this stage before. Whether or not it turned a corner in Game 7 against Atlanta, Indiana can summon a level of performance few teams can match. Washington is not one of them.