The Pacers survived that challenge—barely.
Bradley Beal and John Wall won’t bow out so easily.
The Washington Wizards' ballistic backcourt combined for 38 points (25 of them from Beal), 12 rebounds, 16 assists, six steals and three blocks in their team's 102-96 Game 1 win Monday night, helping wrench away home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Even more impressive was how Washington’s dynamic duo divided the labor. In the first half, it was Wall’s open-court exploits—crowd-deafening swats and savvy passing—propelling the Wizards to a 13-point halftime lead.
Then, after a scoreless third quarter, Beal—all 20 baby-faced years of him—broke Indiana’s will with a 13-point fourth-quarter barrage to help keep the answerless Pacers safely at bay.
In Wall and Beal, the Wizards boast the perfect Pacers antidote: a pair of versatile, hyper-athletic wing players capable of breaking down Indiana’s perimeter defense, creating their own shot on the drive or—a Washington fixture—finding teammates for open jumpers.
That the Wizards were able to wield their wild cards so successfully so early might not seem like such a shocking development.
Then again, the Pacers didn’t exactly have the luxury of precedence: According to NBA.com, in the teams’ two regular-season meetings in which both Wall and Beal suited up, Washington’s starting backcourt incited anything but frenzied fear (subscription required):
|Wall-Beal vs. Pacers in Regular Season|
Once the playoffs started, however, it became abundantly clear that Washington’s best hope of plowing a path into May lies in the play of its wings—in particular Wall and Beal, who yielded a net rating of 13.6 over 202 minutes in Washington’s five-game first-round victory over the Chicago Bulls.
The two’s individual talent was never in question—such as it is with one-and-done studs turned lottery locks. But as SB Nation’s Mike Prada aptly noted in this splendid recent piece, Wall and Beal weren’t immune to the challenge of forging a coherent chemistry:
The only obstacle stopping the duo from reaching this point was time. Time for the two to mature. Time for the two to learn how to lead instead of just thriving individually. Time for the two to round out their games and fine-tune their preparation. If you ask members of the Wizards, they'll say this has been a long process that began two and a half years ago when the team abandoned ship on their less mature youngsters and traded them in for able-bodied veterans. The tough work since then has prepared the two young guards for this moment.
Nor has the two’s tenacious play been lost on Washington’s veterans, of which there are plenty (contrary to popular belief, the Wizards were actually the 12th-oldest team this season).
Take journeyman forward Trevor Ariza, who spoke with The Washington Post’s Michael Lee following his team’s Round 1 win.
"The curve has been crazy for them," Ariza said. "They’ve jumped so high in so little time that you never really tell how good, or how great, they can be. But as long as they keep that, ‘I want to get better’ attitude, I don’t think anybody is going to be able to stop them two together."
That might soon include the Indiana Pacers, whose once seemingly unassailable defense has suffered a steady backslide during the team’s much-publicized springtime slump.
In Washington, the Pacers face a foe most proficient precisely where Indiana is at its strongest defensively. Consider: Per NBA.com, the Wizards were fourth in the league during the regular season in field-goal percentage within five feet or less of the rim (62.4 percent), the quadrant Indiana defended at a league-best 51.4 percent.
Meanwhile, the Wizards finished a respectable 13th in the NBA from 14-to-20 feet (38.9 percent) and fifth from 25-to-29 feet (37.1 percent), two sectors where the Pacers charted at fourth (36.9 percent) and 16th (34.2 percent), respectively.
That, of course, is taking the whole season into consideration. Factoring in the two teams’ opposing late-season trajectories, the Pacers’ prospects for containing Washington’s attack would seem significantly weaker—particularly given the Wizards’ ability to convert points off of turnovers, which Indiana committed to the tune of a 15.9 team-turnover percentage, sixth worst in the league during the regular season.
In short, unless Paul George and Lance Stephenson can put a pair of rusty clamps on Washington’s two-headed backcourt beast, the Pacers' already perilous playoff push risks petering out completely in a hot cloud of sneaker smoke and snapping nets.
As the world was ringing in 2014, the Pacers looked every bit the part of an Eastern Conference playoff usurper.
Five months later, Wall and Beal appear poised to make Indiana come to quick grips with a fact of power as time-tested as arms or treaties: Just because you’re closest to the front-runner’s heels doesn’t mean the coast is clear behind you.
Some NBA.com media stats are subscription only. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 6, unless otherwise noted.