On Monday night, the Wizards will take that next step in the postseason when they start a second-round series against the Indiana Pacers.
As they did against the Bulls, the Wizards will be looking to use their combination of youth in the backcourt and veteran presence in the frontcourt to eliminate the struggling Pacers and move on to the Eastern Conference Finals. If they were to get that far, it'd be the first time the Wizards/Bullets have made it to the conference finals since the 1978-79 season.
But in order to get there, three big things need to swing in Washington's playoff direction.
If the Wizards want to continue to move on in the playoffs, Trevor Ariza needs to continue to play strong defense, the Pacers need to continue to struggle and Nene and Marcin Gortat must keep up the success they had in the first round against the Bulls.
Trevor Ariza's Defense
In the first round, Chicago was known as the better defensive team and the more physical team compared to the Wizards. But in that series, the Wizards were able to out-Chicago the Bulls, in part due to Trevor Ariza's defense.
Ariza can defend each team's top offensive threat, and in this case, he'll be facing Indiana's top threat at his same position, Paul George.
The two small forwards have very different roles on their respective teams.
George is Indiana's star player and leader while Ariza is more of a role player known more so for his defense and his corner three-point shooting than anything else.
For this second-round matchup, Ariza's defense of George is the most interesting one-on-one matchup on the floor, as Umair Khan of Bullets Forever pointed out when he wrote:
He has the task of defending Paul George, and it couldn't be at a more inopportune time. George has unearthed his midrange prowess from the first two months of the season, and despite a near first-round collapse by the Pacers, he has manifested himself into one of the top scorers in the league. He averaged nearly 24 points per game on terrific shooting efficiency against the Hawks and he's killing defenses in a variety of ways.
Indiana's offense relies a lot on the pick-and-roll, and it will be up to Ariza to take George out as a part of those kinds of plays. Besides Lance Stephenson, George is the only other threat on the floor in pick-and-roll situations.
Ariza has the ability, though, to put tremendous on-ball pressure on players he is defending, and if he can pressure George, it'll force him to go inside and have to go up against Nene, Gortat or Trevor Booker down low.
In the Bulls series, opponents shot just 52.6 percent at the rim against Ariza, and he averaged 1.2 steals per game, which could put the Wizards into fast-break situations.
Forcing George to take jumpers and mid-range shots will be beneficial for the Wizards. In Indiana's first-round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks (a subpar defensive team) that went seven games, George shot less than 30 percent on pull-up jumpers and 38.3 percent in catch-and-shoot situations.
Look for Ariza to force George to either stay on the perimeter or keep him inside to go up against the big men at around 10 feet or so, both of which would give the Wizards an advantage on defense.
The Pacers' Ability to Bounce Back
This is really nothing that the Wizards can control. Sure, they can come in and play physical in Game 1 to try to rattle the Pacers early on in the series, but right now, a lot of the damage Indiana is doing to itself is coming from within its locker room.
If Indiana plays a similar level of basketball that fans saw in the first six games of the Atlanta series, Washington is going to have a much easier ride to the conference finals.
Back in April, there were already reports of a divide in the Pacers locker room, including a fight that allegedly broke out between Stephenson and Evan Turner.
Then, you have Roy Hibbert's poor body language on the bench and overall bad play in the series and Indiana's ability to defend the three-point shot.
Looking deeper into the playoffs, the Wizards already know who they'd be facing in the Heat if they advance: a team that is ready to win its third consecutive title. But the Pacers are much more of a mystery and could either continue the three months of poor basketball they've played or get back to their early-season form that got them the No. 1 seed in the East in the first place.
The Hawks had a legitimate chance in Game 6 to close out the series and send Indiana home, but they allowed the Pacers and David West to fight their way back, eventually closing out the series at home in Game 7.
But the opening series for the Pacers showed some real weaknesses.
Stephenson took on the mindset that he had to do everything himself, often making poor shot selections and trying to do too much with the ball (he averaged 2.6 turnovers per game in that series).
Hibbert disappeared, only picking up 3.7 rebounds per game when he averaged 6.6 in the regular season, and he was eventually benched outright in favor of a smaller lineup for the Pacers.
If the Pacers can fix some of these issues, and West can continue to play at the level he did in Game 6, this is going to be a much tougher series for the Wizards than if Indy plays down to the level it did against the Hawks.
Nene and Marcin Gortat's Consistency
The big storyline in Washington after the completion of the first-round series was how much its big men dominated Chicago's, even with Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah going up against the Wizards.
Now, in this series and any future series, the Wizards will need Nene and Gortat, their starting frontcourt, to keep up this level of play.
In the past three or so years, Nene has been known to get injured often, and with how many minutes he played in four out of the five games in the first-round series, the potential for injury is a possible concern.
Although Washington won the one game that Nene was suspended for after his altercation with Jimmy Butler, his mid-range shooting has really helped the offense this postseason, and the Wizards are just a better team with him on the court.
After shooting over 60 percent in the first two games of the series, prior to being kicked out of the game in Game 3, Nene was only 5-of-15 from the floor. On defense, Nene kept Noah from shooting anything from mid-range and held opponents to just about 60 percent shooting at the rim.
As far as Gortat goes, the Wizards need him to keep up his strong defensive play, but he must improve on the offensive end.
In the regular season, Gortat was known as a guy who could play by the post and be a safety valve if Bradley Beal or Ariza couldn't find anything on the perimeter.
But in the first round, Gortat's shooting was awful, just barely breaking 42 percent shooting from inside eight feet and missing all three of his shots between 16 and 24 feet.
If the Wizards want to keep moving on in the playoffs, Nene and Gortat need to continue to play tough on both ends of the floor and continue to attack Hibbert to make sure he doesn't get his confidence back.
As Beal told The Washington Post after practice on Sunday, the Wizards need to be ready to play an intense game against the Pacers. "We’ve got to increase our intensity because it’s a tougher team and it’s definitely going to be a battle. They can wear you down, and if you let them hang around, anything is possible with the guys they have.”
Note: All stats used were prior to Washington's game against Indiana on Monday and are from NBA.com/Stats unless otherwise noted.
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