The Washington Wizards stole home-court advantage from the Indiana Pacers, but the latter got an enormous lift from a potentially potent weapon some feared it had lost for good.
Washington heads back to the nation's capital with four road playoff wins in five tries and the knowledge that a fifth was well within reach despite a less-than-stellar performance. If the Wizards don't shoot five of 21 from deep or five of 12 at the line Wednesday night, we're not discussing an even series right now.
But the series is split, knotted at one game apiece after Indy's improbable 86-82 Game 2 win.
Roy Hibbert led the way with 28 points—five more than he'd scored in his last six games combined—and Lance Stephenson chipped in with 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists to help the Pacers survive in a game they had to have.
With the action shifting to Washington for Game 3 Friday night (8 p.m. ET on ESPN), both teams have reasons for optimism. But which one should be feeling best about its chance for advancement and why?
The Keys for Washington
There are three All-Stars in this series and only one is on Washington's side.
Judging by the numbers, you'd have a hard time identifying which player that is:
We knew entering the postseason that Wall wasn't a shooter, and one's asking him to become one now.
Still, a 32.7 percent success rate from the field through seven games is almost unbelievable. He's too talented for a number like that, but he's letting this happen.
He's taking what the defense is giving him, but with the physical tools he possesses, he should be the one dictating the action:
When John Wall realizes no one can check him in this series when he goes to the basket, it's lights out.— Mike Wise (@MikeWiseguy) May 7, 2014
Even with Wall stumbling out of the gate (from a scoring standpoint, at least), Washington is still 5-2 in its first playoff trip since 2008. This team is finding ways to win without his scoring, but it needed his help Wednesday and he couldn't provide it.
"Some nights you’re going to miss shots, but I didn’t play great," Wall said, via Mike Wise of The Washington Post. "I feel like I lost the game for my team. We still had a chance to win the game at the end."
The Wizards will need more from Wall going forward, but they're learning a valuable lesson in the short term: They don't need their A-game to win this series.
If this was the first you'd seen of either of these two teams this season, you'd have a really hard time correctly picking which club had 12 more wins than the other. The Wizards know the blueprint for knocking off the Pacers, and they have the pieces needed for the job: shooters to spread the floor, slashers to exploit that space and post threats to keep Indy's big bodies busy.
Wall was dreadful Wednesday night (two of 13), Trevor Ariza didn't fare much better (two of eight), and the Wizards still had a lead with five minutes left in the contest. They won't have to be that much better if Bradley Beal and Nene keep dissecting defenses as they have been throughout the postseason:
The Beal-Nene two-man game continues to be the #Wizards' bread and butter during the playoffs.— Bradford Doolittle (@bbdoolittle) May 8, 2014
Or if Marcin Gortat has another 21-point performance in him, which is well within the realm of possibilities, as TruthAboutIt.net's Adam Rubin explained:
The national media will be talking about the resurgence of Hibbert in Game 2, but Marcin Gortat was just as impressive. Whereas most of Hibbert’s points came at the expense of Indiana’s normal offensive scheme (and with the aid of several missed travelling calls), Gortat got his in the flow of the game. It seemed like anytime Washington needed a basket, Gortat was rolling to the rim for a thunderous dunk or an easy layup.
And by thunderous dunk, he meant soul-devouring smash.
The Wizards don't look new to this scene.
They play with the poise of battle-tested warriors, relying on a lethal blend of skills, strength and smarts.
"Talent gives you an opportunity. Belief in doing it gets you over the top," coach Randy Wittman said, via Jason Reid of The Washington Post. "That’s the main thing: the mental standpoint."
Washington carries itself like the favorite in this series. After 96 minutes between the two teams, it isn't hard to figure out why it would.
The Keys for Indiana
Wednesday couldn't have been bigger for the Pacers, not just for their chances in this series, but for the long-term future of their building-block big man.
The 27-year-old had looked lost for months, and there were no guarantees of him ever finding his way.
Something changed in Game 2.
Maybe it was simply one man's refusal to stay buried at rock bottom.
"I just felt like I just had one thing on my mind: to help this team win," Hibbert said, via Pacers.com's Scott Agness. "Like I said, my teammates did a great job of getting me the ball in my sweet spot and believing in me. I just wanted to return the favor."
Whatever happened, it worked. And not just for the big man, but for his entire team.
Hibbert was the story, but so was this: PAcers limited Washington's threes, second chance points and transition game.— Bob Kravitz (@bkravitz) May 8, 2014
"When Hibbert is standing tall and feeling confident, like in last postseason's Eastern Conference finals and the first three months or so of this season, the Pacers are certified legit," ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst wrote. "When he's slouching and invisible, they can often resemble a quivering mess."
Hibbert is a pivotal piece of this puzzle, perhaps the most important one of all.
He may not score another 28 points in this entire series, but he doesn't need to. If George (five of 13), Stephenson (three of 12) and David West (three of eight) don't all lose their shots on the same night, Hibbert wouldn't have approached that type of offensive involvement.
The Pacers are 0 for 16 on mid-range jumpers since the start of the 2nd quarter— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 8, 2014
If the Pacers play this right, he won't see those type of touches again.
"While Indiana deserves to hold its head high for squaring its second-round series, it would be unwise to relax," SI.com's Matt Dollinger wrote. "The Pacers won Game 2 — but in a totally unsustainable manner."
The big man played the 501st game of his career Wednesday (playoffs included). He's scored 28 or more points in eight of those contests (1.6 percent of the time).
"Obviously, nobody expected he's going to go off like that," Gortat said, via Matthew Glenesk of The Indianapolis Star. "We knew he was going to get some touches, and he was going to come ready to play. Nobody expected he's going to go for 28."
Nobody should expect that again—or even hope for it.
The Pacers need to get more from their perimeter players. Hill, Stephenson and George have to make their counterparts work on the defensive end, taking energy out of their legs and (ideally) a couple inches off of their jump shots.
Washington has no major deterrents guarding the rim. Gortat led the team with 1.5 blocks this season, about the same as the bad Hibbert (1.4 over first eight playoff games). Hill, Stephenson and George can all get to the basket, but they have to work for it.
They need to show the fire that powered the Pacers into the NBA's elite ranks earlier this season. A fire that frankly feels easily extinguishable for a team with the Wizards' talent and tenacity.
The Wizards should be enjoying a 2-0 series lead. That type of knowledge could prove problematic in the wrong hands.
There's enough experience and hunger inside this locker room to keep that from happening.
"Washington players and coaches were hardly shook by that result following the game," Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer wrote, "likely because of the confidence gathered during the team's sound thrashing of the Chicago Bulls in the first round, and the team's win and near-win in the first two games of the series."
Who will grab control of this series in Game 3?
The Pacers got a gift, potentially a major one if Hibbert's confidence returned with those ugly (but effective) hook shots. One win at the Verizon Center, and the home-court advantage they battled all season to obtain will be theirs once again.
But the ball is in the Wizards' court, and this team is learning how to cherish every touch. With a disciplined defense and incendiary offense, Washington has the keys needed to unlock another series win.
Wittman's club is 48 minutes away from letting that opportunity slip away or 48 minutes from seizing the moment. I'd say the safe(r) money is on the latter.