WASHINGTON — If there were such a thing as mischievous, invisible gremlins, and if these gremlins made it their mission to ruin basketball, and if by some chance they were set loose in the nation’s capital, in the midst of a critical NBA playoff game, then you might have a plausible rationale for what unfolded on the Verizon Center court Friday night.
How else to explain the shots that fell three feet short?
The free throw that bounced sideways, parallel to the baseline?
The stumbling? The bumbling?
The flailing? The flopping?
And that score? Oh my, that score.
After 48 minutes and 73 shots and a string of random absurdities, the Washington Wizards reached the final buzzer with 63 points, a franchise low for any game, regular season or playoffs.
The Indiana Pacers—who are not basketball-hating gremlins, but do enjoy scrambling the game’s aesthetics—managed to score 85 points and thus earned the victory and a 2-1 lead in this second-round series.
There was nothing to like about this game, unless you were a Pacer, or a Pacers fan, or one of those masochistic souls who yearns for the grinding, brutish, soul-sucking, low-scoring NBA of the late ‘90s.
As NBA writer Russ Bengtson noted on Twitter:
I'm not watching, but this Pacers/Wizards game sounds like a '90s Knicks/Heat game without the fights, the good players, and the ball.— Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson) May 10, 2014
Worse, this game actually did feature some of the league’s more highly skilled players, except neither John Wall nor Bradley Beal could shoot straight or even keep their dribble at times against the Pacers’ nagging, bumping, slapping, clawing defense.
You could accuse the Pacers of making the game ugly. They will take this as a compliment.
“I think our success has always been ugly,” said guard George Hill, with a slightly mischievous grin. “For the last three years I’ve been here, no one wanted to watch us. We didn’t have that glow, or that flair, or them high-caliber people who tune in to watch us all the time. I think that gave us that chip on our shoulder—that no one expected us to be where we’re at. So it’s good that no one wants to watch us.”
Suffice to say, the NBA won’t be hiring Hill to run its postseason marketing campaign.
Is it too soon to be wistful for the first round? Only a week ago, we were talking about a historically great postseason, stuffed with Game 7s, overtimes and breathtaking buzzer-beaters. Then the conference semifinals arrived.
None of the four series have been particularly enthralling so far. The San Antonio Spurs have blown out the Portland Trail Blazers twice, by an average of 20.5 points.
The Miami Heat hardly broke a sweat in taking a 2-0 lead on the Brooklyn Nets. The Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder split their first two games, but each game was decided by double digits. The third was more competitive.
And then there’s the Wizards-Pacers series. It looked compelling enough after two games, with the Wizards stealing a game in Indiana, the Pacers continuing a two-month battle with themselves and Roy Hibbert—the All-Star center who was mockingly photoshopped onto milk cartons—miraculously reemerging for 28 points in Game 2.
But the Wizards were easily the feel-good story of the postseason, a team no one expected to be here but suddenly appeared capable of a conference finals berth. And they were fabulously entertaining to boot, with Wall’s speed, Beal’s brilliant stroke, Nene’s feistiness and Trevor Ariza’s three-point barrages.
The Pacers made it all disappear Friday night, gumming up the Wizards’ half-court offense, denying them any chance to run and generally sucking all fluidity out of the game.
In the sequence that defined the night, Beal got bumped by Paul George, lost the ball, chased it, stumbled, booted the ball, chased it some more and slapped it into the backcourt for a violation.
Moments later, Nene launched a free throw that hit the back of the rim and bounced right to left. Late in the third quarter, Wall tossed an entry pass that soared over Marcin Gortat and dropped out of bounds.
All that was missing was the Benny Hill theme and a laugh track.
By halftime, the Pacers had scored 34 points, the Wizards 33—three points fewer than the Spurs scored by themselves in the first half of their game Thursday night.
The Wizards did not cross the 50-point mark until 8:56 remained in the game. By the time they got to 60, the arena was half empty. The Wizards’ final point total was just one point more than what Carmelo Anthony scored by himself back on Jan. 24.
It was more entertaining to follow the game on Twitter, where the Wizards’ shot chart—a blur of red zones, designating misses—was comically analogized by a photo of the bleeding elevators scene in The Shining. (Nicely done, CBS Eye on Basketball tweeter.)
Wizards shot chart update: pic.twitter.com/vS8uEiR6pr— Eye on Basketball (@EyeOnBasketball) May 10, 2014
The Wizards converted just 24 of their 73 shots. Of those, 15 came within eight feet of the basket. They were 0-of-11 on jumpers between eight and 16 feet, 5-of-19 on shots between 16 and 24 feet.
Beal, a playoff neophyte, has already posted three 25-point games this postseason—joining Magic Johnson as the only players to accomplish that feat before age 21. On Friday, he shot 6-of-19, finishing with 16 points.
“They contested a lot of shots,” Beal said of the Pacers. “They didn’t make anything easy.”
Whether it was Luis Scola shoving Martell Webster in the back or David West knocking Drew Gooden over the baseline, the Pacers did everything possible to throw the Wizards out of whack.
For the Pacers, ugly is good. Ugly is productive. Ugly might just get them back to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Beal admitted to feeling uncomfortable with the physical, grinding pace, saying, “I don’t even know what the final score was. I don’t even know how many points we had.”
The most fluid action of the night was the fans’ mad dash toward the exits, with four minutes left. Credit them for staying that long. And for not gouging out their eyes.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.