An enormous improvement by Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert allowed his team to even its second-round NBA playoff series with the Washington Wizards at a game apiece on Wednesday. Hibbert led all scorers with 28 points as the Pacers secured an 86-82 Game 2 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
A back-and-forth contest saw the Eastern Conference's top seed fighting to avoid a severe hole before embarking on a road trip to the nation's capital. The Wizards lost their second of two regular-season road meetings with Indiana, 93-66, but in these playoffs, they have proved to be resilient time and again.
Indiana has shown its own ability to weather criticism—especially Hibbert—as ESPN Stats & Info highlighted:
Dan Dakich of 1070 The Fan offered insight into why Hibbert played so much better than he had recently, and TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal did as well, per Turner Sports PR:
Marcin Gortat almost offset Hibbert's brilliance as he displayed his own prowess on the offensive end, putting up 21 points and 11 rebounds to lead the charge for Washington. In the final 12 minutes, he wasn't quite as effective, as the Pacers imposed their will and pulled out a tight contest.
Whenever Indiana put together a strong run, the visitors would drain a clutch shot to stem the tide. Wizards point guard John Wall's struggles shooting the ball persisted, as he managed just six points, but dished out eight assists to one turnover and generated plenty of open looks for his teammates.
Wall did miss a couple of late three-pointers that would have helped immensely, and Mike Wise of The Washington Post brought up a pertinent point in his analysis:
George Hill stripped Wall of the ball with under a minute to go, leading to a Lance Stephenson jumper at the other end for an 84-79 Indiana lead. At that point, it seemed the outcome was essentially decided until Bradley Beal drained a three-pointer right in Hill's grill on a pass from Nene:
The emotional leader for the Pacers is David West, and he didn't have his best game (nine points, six rebounds), but knocked down two critical free throws to clinch Game 2.
Washington has to be quite pleased with its balanced effort despite coming up short. In addition to Gortat's interior presence and Wall's distributing ability, Bradford Doolittle of ESPN noted how effective the complementary combination of shooting guard Bradley Beal and Nene was:
Nene made some clutch shots down the stretch to keep Washington in it and scored 14 on the night, while Beal posted 17 points, five rebounds, seven assists and two steals in a strong, all-around showing.
In the first half, Hibbert was the story. He put up a whopping 17 points, prompting ESPN personality Skip Bayless to weigh in on the rather shocking development:
BasketballInsiders.com's Alex Kennedy reported what Hibbert had to say before Game 2 about how he'd change his approach after being held scoreless in three of the last four postseason games:
I’m just going to try to be more aggressive on both ends, and not being content with letting all of our guards and forwards get all of the defensive rebounds. I’m going to try to go a good job of putting a body on Nene and [Marcin] Gortat. I just need to go out there and pursue rebounds. … I think the most important for me is play aggressive and stay out of foul trouble. [...] whenever I am called on to make a post move, I’ll try to be as efficient as possible.
It's safe to say Hibbert accomplished what he set out to do, playing like the All-Star fans were accustomed to seeing for most of the 2013-14 campaign.
But despite how strong Hibbert was playing, Indiana still headed to the locker room at halftime trailing, 45-43. That didn't stop the Pacers from coming out firing in the second half, though, as Stephenson overcame a poor 0-of-8 shooting start from the field by asserting himself, helping drive Indiana to a 68-64 lead after three.
Scott Agness of Pacers.com noted how big of an edge the Pacers had from the charity stripe, and how well they were containing Wall and Co. in transition:
The Wizards soon erased that deficit as Indiana's inefficiency from the field continued, with Washington's underrated defense putting the clamps down. ESPN Stats & Info noted in the fourth quarter how the Pacers' horrendous shooting was keeping the Wizards in the game:
After beginning the final quarter by missing seven of their first eight shots, coach Frank Vogel's Pacers drained five in a row to battle back.
This was a monumental win for Indiana—a season-saving one, perhaps—and it was just what Hibbert needed.
The Pacers are tasked with pulling off a win on the road, which won't be easy. They will still have the pressure of living up to their gaudy expectations, while Washington's young leaders in Wall and Beal are still in uncharted territory and trying to establish their identities.
If Wall can somehow find his groove, attack the rim more often and shoot closer to the 43.3 percent from the floor that he did in the regular season, the Wizards have a great chance to win both games at home. Beal has proved to be unfazed by the big stage, and the rest of the starters have previous experience on which to draw.
The momentum is in Indiana's corner, yet Washington has plenty to be optimistic about after nearly stealing both games away from the Verizon Center.