As the most memorable first round of the NBA playoffs wound down Sunday, it seems as if the Washington Wizards have gotten lost in the shuffle of things. But now with the second round starting today, the Wizards are back at the forefront as they will face off with the Indiana Pacers as the Eastern Conference Semifinals take off. Here is my preview and prediction for what should be an exciting series.
Neither team is known as a powerhouse offensively, but each do certain things well. The Wizards offense is based off the attacking ability of point guard John Wall, who uses his blazing speed to beat defenders and find open players on the perimeter. The Wizards shot 38 percent from beyond the arc in the regular season, fifth-best in the NBA, and Wall’s drive and kick ability is a big reason for that. Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, and Martell Webster are all big-time 3-point shooters.
Besides the solid perimeter play of the Wizards, they have a two-headed monster down low that gave the Bulls frontcourt all sorts of problems in the first round. Marcin Gortat and Nene are both capable of scoring in a variety of ways. Whether it is on the block with their back to the basket, facing up, pick and rolls, or pick and pops, these two veteran big men are capable of causing any opposing frontcourt issues trying to defend them. Nene obliterated Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah in the previous series, scoring 17.8 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting for the series. The Wizards can attack you in a variety of ways.
The Pacers are not considered an offensive juggernaut, by any means. In the regular season, they scored 101.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com Stats. That was 22nd-best in the league. However, that number is slightly skewed by their hot start in the beginning of the year. In 18 games in March, they scored just 96.5 points per 100 possessions. A big reason their offense has struggled is because of the decline All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert have been on throughout the year. Hibbert has been horrible in recent weeks and was a complete non-factor in their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. In what was a terrible matchup for him, he scored just 5.3 points per game on 37 percent shooting. With the Wizards playing two bigs most of the time, Hibbert will have a chance to get his name out of the Hasheem Thabeet comparisons for the time being.
While George has been the brunt of criticism lately, rightfully so, he was pretty impressive in the first round. He scored 23.9 points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from deep. George is still a star in this league and is capable of leading his team to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year.
Defense is the reason the Pacers secured the No. 1 seed in the East this season. They are the best defensive team in the league. Even when their offense struggled at scoring points in the regular season, their defense was always there. They held opponents to a league-best 96.7 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. They are led by one of the best wing defenders in the league in Paul George. His ability to deny the basketball on the perimeter is an underrated trait that can be extremely disruptive to opposing offenses. Behind him is Roy Hibbert, who defends the rim better than anyone in the league. Of guys who played more than 25 minutes per game and played in more than 50 games, Hibbert defended the rim the best. Opponents shot 41.4 percent around the basket when Hibbert was defending the rim, according to NBA.com’s Player Tracking Data. The Pacers’ funnel opposing offenses to Hibbert, thus making it hard to score, and it is a big reason why he anchored the league’s best defense.
The Wizards are also a good defensive team. While they don’t have the standout defensive players like the Pacers, they are made up of a group of solid defenders. Their backcourt of Wall and Beal can be disruptive with their speed and Wall’s length. Neither are elite defenders, but both can hold their own on the defensive end. Ariza is the Wizards’ best defender. His length and ability to play passing lanes is a reason the Wizards held opponents to 102.4 points per 100 possessions, ninth-best in the league, during the regular season. Both Nene and Gortat are big, physical bodies, who are good on rotations and find themselves getting in the way of offensive players a lot. Yes, getting in the way of offensive players is a big part of defense.
Every year throughout the playoffs, we see how important bench play becomes. A guy can come in and spark a team and swing a series. While neither of these teams have a so-called heat-check guy coming off the bench, both teams have players that can impact a series.
For the Wizards, it is Andre Miller and Trevor Booker. When Miller comes in, he gives Wall a breather and runs the offense. His ability to post up smaller guards and facilitate can spark a run for the second unit at any moment he steps out on the court. Booker is a high-energy guy who does damage with his effort. He was huge in the Bulls series, grabbing rebounds and loose balls off of sheer hustle. His energy is often contagious and could get the Wizards going in a game where they are flat. Martell Webster is a sniper off the bench as well for the Wizards (146 made 3s on 39.2 percent shooting in the regular season).
The Pacers’ key bench players are C.J. Watson and Luis Scola. Much of the time the Pacers were struggling late in the season was when Watson was out. He is a solid backup guard who provides more scoring than starter George Hill. Scola is a player who can stretch a defense with his mid-range shooting. Those two are the cornerstone of this Pacers bench unit. Evan Turner has done very little since being acquired at the trade deadline from Philadelphia. We may see Chris Copeland from time to time, depending on how the Wizards try to attack the Pacers, because of his ability to stretch the floor (more on this in a minute).
3 Things To Look For
1. Do the Wizards try to go small?
One the biggest reason the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks took the Pacers to seven games in round one was because they played small and made the Pacers adjust. It had the Pacers all out of whack and took Hibbert out of the series. The Wizards have not experimented with many small lineups this year, so I am not sure if they see this as a good strategy to try. Plus the Hawks had Pero Antic, a center who can knock down 3s. The Wizards do not have a guy with Antic’s size who can really drag Hibbert that far away from the hoop. But, who knows? It is certainly something to look for.
2. The Trevor Ariza-Paul George Matchup
George is clearly the better player, but if Ariza can even almost play George to a standstill on both ends of the floor, it’s hard to imagine the Wizards losing this series. Ariza has the ability to defend George and if George is being contained that means Lance Stephenson will try to be the Pacers main playmaker, which can lead lead to a variety of things (good and bad). Ariza was great in the Bulls series. He scored 15.6 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting from long-range while grabbing 7.6 rebounds. If he can put up similar numbers to that and adequately defend George, the Wizards will have a great chance to head to the Eastern Conference Finals.
3. Can Nene keep up his hot play?
As mentioned before, Nene was sizzling in the Bulls series. He completely owned Noah and Taj Gibson, two elite defenders. It will be interesting to see if the big Brazilian will have enough in the tank to keep putting up big numbers against another physical team. Remember, he missed significant time at the end of the season and just had a few regular seasons game to get right before bing thrown into the fire against the Bulls for big minutes.
As of right now, the Wizards are the better team. The Pacers looked better in their Game 7 Saturday, but the Wizards looked very impressive against the Bulls. The better team usually wins in the playoffs.
Wizards in 6