The Indiana Pacers held off the Washington Wizards in Game 6 Thursday at the Verizon Center, pulling out a 93-80 win to close out the Eastern Conference semifinals 4-2. The Pacers will face the Miami Heat on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
• How good are the Pacers? One major question looms over the Pacers throughout their postseason run: Will they ever recapture their early-season form? Through March 3, the Pacers were 46-13 and sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference.
They had the top defense in the league, a burgeoning superstar in Paul George, an elite shotblocking center in Roy Hibbert and the experience of last year’s conference finals run. If their ensuing slump – a 10-13 finish to the regular season, followed by a seven-game slog in the first round against Atlanta – was a temporary lull, something they could snap out of, the Pacers could be a legitimate threat to the Heat.
Indiana had flashed glimpses of its potential, signs it was beginning to break out of its weeks-long lull, such as its 22-point win over the Wizards in Game 3. But in Game 5 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday, with a chance to close out Washington, Indiana flopped in an ugly 23-point loss.
Marcin Gortat wreaked havoc inside, the Wizards outrebounded the Pacers by the largest margin in a postseason game since 1985-86 and John Wall erupted for 27 points. Indiana was punked on its own floor, the sort of beatdown that calls into question a team’s ability to bounce back and move forward. That, of course, was what Indiana needed to do Thursday night to avoid letting this series be dragged into a Game 7.
We are about to get a better indication of just how good this Pacers team is. Indiana suffocated the Wizards into another dreary performance in their home arena. Thursday night’s closeout loss in Game 6 dropped the Wizards' postseason record at Verizon Center to 1-4. Washington has not won a second-round playoff game at home since 1979.
Four starters scored in double figures for the Pacers, who shot 51 percent from the floor and held Washington to 39.2 percent and 2-18 from beyond the arc. Lance Stephenson sparked Indiana's offense in the first half and finished with 17 points to go with eight assists, while George and Roy Hibbert added 11 points apiece. The key behind Indiana's win, though, was David West.
West, who rarely receives due recognition for his consistent play, keyed Indiana by scoring 18 points in the second half. As the Wizards, down 14 points at halftime, attempted to make a comeback in the fourth quarter, West knocked down a series of shots to keep them at bay. He connected from 18 feet with 8:02 remaining to put the Pacers up one, from 19 about a minute later to stretch the lead to three and from 21 around the 4-minute mark to make it 83-76.
Every. Possession. Must. Touch. The. Hands. Of. David. West.
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) May 16, 2014
While Indiana outplayed Washington through much of the game, especially in the first half, it was West’s clutch shooting that subdued the Wizards in the final frame. West drilled a jumper with 1:27 remaining, giving him 29 points, his highest tally since February, and stood as the final field goal of a 16-4 run Indiana ripped off to close the game.
"Very proud of our guys, obviously for just showing tremendous grit and toughness," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said at a postgame news conference. "Not just with our defense, which is what our reputation is built on, but just showing some offensive toughness tonight -- taking care of the basketball, making the extra pass and having a lot of guts to make big shots down the stretch. David West in particular led the way and just happy to be advancing."
For stretches of Game 6, the Pacers looked like the imposing group we’ve longed to see all postseason, the one with championship potential. Their defense was stifling, West was knocking down big shots, Stephenson was doing damage in the paint. But Indiana’s inconsistency makes it difficult to know how it will fare in the next round, against one of the best teams in the league. Any lapses in performance, such as the dud they laid in Game 5 against Washington, could cost the Pacers the series.
Their margin of error going forward is thinner than it was been against the Hawks and Wizards, two teams Indiana could outlast in a seven-game series despite not bringing its best effort every game. Whether it can beat Miami will likely hinge on the answer to the aforementioned question.
• John Wall doesn't follow up. Before Game 5 on Tuesday morning, John Wall reportedly told coach Randy Wittman that he was frustrated about a slump he’d been mired in through the first four games of this series. Wittman encouraged Wall to believe in himself and Wall responded with 27 points and five assists in a scintillating performance.
It was, without question, Wall’s best game of these playoffs and it seemed a stark contradiction of the notion that the fourth-year guard couldn’t handle the pressure and intensity of postseason basketball.
It remained unclear, however, whether he could take that performance and approximate, if not replicate, it in subsequent games. Wall never seemed to find his groove against Indiana’s swarming defense on Thursday, scoring 12 points on just 5-of-16 shooting and committing five turnovers (though he did dish out nine assists).
While he made a couple of big shots in the fourth quarter to further Washington’s late comeback, including one around the nine-minute mark that pulled the Wizards within two, he was not assertive enough attacking the rim, and only attempted two free throws.
John Wall has to at least SEE if Roy Hibbert is going to block his shot. Can't keep getting to rack, jumping & turning around #wizards
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) May 16, 2014
The Pacers had a hand in ensuring Wall did not go off for another big game, contesting his long-range shots (Wall went 0-for-4 from three) and shutting off driving lanes. Still, given his performance in Game 5, you sort of expected Wall to come through with another big game on Thursday with his and his team’s season on the line.
It should be mentioned that Wall was far from the only Wizard who struggled Thursday. Trevor Ariza had just six points on one-of-five shooting from the field, Bradley Beal shot 7-of-19 and the Wizards knocked down only two three-point shots. Against a defense of Indiana's caliber, that's not going to cut it.
But the focus will be on Wall, the purported "face of the franchise" whose max contract kicks in next season. In the end, this postseason could serve as a teachable moment for the young Wizards point guard. It’s a testament to his prodigious athleticism and skill that five of six SI.com NBA writers polled in a roundtable question chose him over Damian Lillard for the next 10 years.
Though he may have wilted in the postseason, Wall made significant strides in 2013-14 and flashed immense potential that it seems he’s only just beginning to tap into. It will be fascinating to watch him develop in the coming years. (To Wall's credit, he did convert a spectacular layup in the third quarter)
• George gets into it with Wizards fans. Late in the third quarter, a couple of Wizards fans, presumably irritated by their team’s eight-point deficit, started jawing at George. George probably should have just ignored them, but instead he shouted back after sitting down next to his teammates.
I think we all know who got the last laugh here.