8 Factors That Will Decide Whether Indiana Pacers Can Survive Washington Wizards
Instead of heading back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse with an even series, the Indiana Pacers are now 48 minutes from the Eastern Conference Finals after a 95-92 win on Mother's Day.
Paul George led Indiana's 19-point comeback with 28 of his career playoff-high 39 points coming in the second half, and the Pacers return home with a commanding 3-1 advantage over the Washington Wizards.
Commanding might even be an understatement:
Notable NBA stat: Teams that had a 3-1 lead in a playoff series went on to win 211 of 219 times (Elias)— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 12, 2014
That's 96.3 percent, meaning the Pacers would have to experience a meltdown of historical proportions to end their season this round.
While it appears Indiana has rediscovered its winning ways, this team isn't exactly out of the woods of its last well-chronicled collapse.
A Pacers fan put up a Craigslist ad for Paul George’s “missing talent” http://t.co/ByPbVLUzlD— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 8, 2014
With Game 5 slated for Tuesday night, the Indiana gets its first of three chances to send the Wizards packing. Here are eight factors that need to go their way in order for the Pacers' playoff run to continue.
Paul George Puts the Team on His Back
As evidenced in Game 4, Indiana stops and starts with Paul George.
Down 17 at half, George chipped away at the lead largely by draining six of eight three-pointers and playing lockdown defense on Bradley Beal, who shot just 3-of-9 for eight second-half points. He played 46 minutes in a Mother's Day performance to remember.
Paul George joins LeBron James as the ONLY players since 1986 with 35+ Pts/10+ Reb/6+ 3-pt FG in a NBA playoff game.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) May 12, 2014
George has been nothing short of miraculous dragging a team struggling to regain its identity through these playoffs. He's averaging a stout 23.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists, and hitting 42 percent from beyond the arc.
While his raw shooting numbers leave a lot to be desired in this series—hitting just 27 of 65 from the field—George's shooting percentage has improved every game.
Aside from Game 1, he's limiting Beal from having the game-changing performance he did in Game 2 against Chicago. In Indiana's three wins this series, the second-year guard is shooting 41.7 percent from the field and is just 5-of-15 from beyond the arc.
Another strong performance from Indiana's leader and the East's top seed will enter the Conference Finals more well rested than its opponent.
Hibbert Continues His Steady Resurgence
After a confounding Game 1 in which Hibbert went without a single point or rebound for the second time in the postseason, the big man has found himself. His monster 28-point, nine-rebound performance in Game 2 almost single-handedly evened the series for Indiana on a night when George could only muster 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting.
In the last three games, the Georgetown man is giving his team nearly 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. And he's earned Frank Vogel's confidence to keep him on the floor for 34 minutes a night after playing just 22 minutes per game against Atlanta.
Hibbert isn't just contributing, he's getting the ball on offense in late-game situations. Clinging to a one-point lead with just over a minute to go in Game 4, Lance Stephenson fed him in the post and he converted a hook shot to give Indiana some breathing room at 94-91.
I was so happy to see the smile back on Roy Hibbert's face after scoring a huge basket late in the 4th qtr.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) May 12, 2014
He played an active role in the big second-half comeback, limiting Washington bigs to just six points in the paint in the third quarter.
Hibbert had nine points, seven rebounds, and two blocks in the third quarter. That’s not terrible.— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) May 12, 2014
He's back to being disruptive on defense—Nene and Marcin Gortat are scoring seven less points combined than in their previous series with Chicago. And Hibbert is not forcing the offense—shooting a robust 61.1 percent from the field.
Reestablishing Indiana's inside presence goes a long way to limiting what Washington can do in the half-court offense.
Win the Battle of the Benches
Rare is the occasion that a team gets so thoroughly dominated in bench scoring and comes out victorious.
C.J. Watson scored the Pacers' only two bench points in Game 4, while Washington's AARP reserve unit led by Al Harrington, Drew Gooden and Andre Miller dropped 32. Granted, Watson was Indiana's only non-starter to play double-digit minutes, but Gooden took more shots than the Pacers' bench combined.
Does Detlef Schrempf still have eligibility? This Pacers’ bench needs help.— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) May 12, 2014
This is nothing new—Vogel's bench was in the bottom third of the Association in minutes and 27th in scoring in the regular season, according to Hoopsstats.com.
But Indiana is going to need every ounce from its starters in a possible Conference Finals rematch with Miami that will get physical. George, Hibbert and co. could stand to watch their teammates score at least a few baskets during those few precious minutes of rest left in this series.
Nene Continues Slumping
Without Nene's emergence as a reliable No. 2 scorer, Washington may not have had the confidence to get past Chicago in the first round.
The three victories he played in (Washington won Game 4 while he served a suspension) Nene dropped 24, 17 and 20 points on 61.7 percent shooting. He grabbed 6.5 boards and dished 3.3 assists for the whole series.
Against Indiana the veteran power forward seems to have forgotten how to be effective. His stat line in this series looks like it belongs to a completely different player:
Eyes on John Wall but Nene's guy I'm watching. Vs. CHI: 17.8p, 6.5r, 54.8%. Vs. IND: 12.3p, 4.7r, 36.4%. G3: 3/14, 8p, 3r, 2f, 34m.— Steve Aschburner (@AschNBA) May 11, 2014
Nene is nursing an ankle he sprained in Game 2, and Indiana has jumped all over it by looking to the paint more often. Hibbert and David West have averaged 22.7 shots combined in the last three games of this series compared to 17.7 in the seven against Atlanta.
Without an effective Nene running pick-and-rolls with John Wall and Bradley Beal, Indiana's defenders can be more aggressive both on-ball and with help.
Pacers went way way way under on those screens, daring Wizards' guards to hit jumpers and jumping out on Nene in pick and pop. Working.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 10, 2014
He and Gortat combined for a whopping 12 points in the Game 4 loss. If the Pacers can coax repeat performances out of the Washington starting front court, it will put pressure on the Wizards' young guards to force the issue.
Don't Let Washington Set the Tempo
Aside from Paul George's monster night, one stat line jumps out from Indiana's 19-point comeback:
Wizards scoreless in transition in the third after 18 in the first half. Hibbert, a key component in the comeback, with 9p/7r/2b in 3Q.— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) May 12, 2014
Washington finished the game with the same 18 fast-break points it got in the first half. Bottlenecking the Wizards' speed game forced them to rely on half-court execution, and the No. 5 seed managed just 13 second-half field goals. Wall and Beal become a lot easier to manage when prevented from getting out in front and finishing at the rim with six or seven players still at the other end of the court.
The theory rings true throughout the first 11 games of the playoffs. Indiana and its opponents have combined to average 174.7 points in the team's seven wins, and 194.8 in four losses.
As important as slowing down Washington is to the game plan, Indiana's ability to engage its offense early in the shot clock has made points easier to come by—especially for Hibbert. Indy Cornrow's Tyler Bischoff breaks down how the big man exploded for 28 points in Game 2:
Pushing the ball off of turnovers or missed shots coupled with Hibbert running the floor led to good looks for slump-busting big man...
On the Pacers second possession, Hibbert got an easy layup because the Pacers went fast, and the Wizards helped off of Hibbert.
He goes on to detail several other Pacers possessions that began with the offense running up the floor at full speed and ended with an easy bucket for Hibbert.
Turnovers will be key. Indiana had 20 of them in Game 4 and still managed to pull out the win. But Vogel's men need to take better care of the ball like they did in the first three games (43 points surrendered on 31 turnovers).
Bradley Beal Remembers He's 20 Years Old
At the ripe age of 20, Beal is in the midst of a coming-out party this postseason.
Since a shaky 3-of-11, 13-point performance in his first career playoff game (which he also included seven assists), Beal has been on a tear. He's scored 20.5 points on .446 shooting (including a blistering .450 from three) and distributed 5.1 assists in eight games.
Lance Stephenson might have been "Born Ready," but Bradley Beal, by comparison, was "Born Grown Up."— Steve Aschburner (@AschNBA) May 12, 2014
Beal's numbers put him among some elite company:
Bradley Beal is 1 of 4 players in NBA history with 20 PPG, 5 APG, 5 RPG in a postseason age 21 or younger (Westbrook, LeBron, McGrady).— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) May 9, 2014
He's also become one of coach Randy Wittman's most trusted guys, leaving him on the floor as the only starter with four bench guys for extended stretches in Game 4. Vogel has one-upped Wittman in the coaching chess match, leaving the taller George on court in those situations to get some time away from Trevor Ariza.
Vogel said they’ve tweaked rotation, similar to WAS, so PG is in there some v 2nd unit; Allows him to guard Beal, attack with Ariza on bench— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) May 12, 2014
Big Panda, as he's affectionately known, is capable of exploding for 30 points any given night, but with George hounding him the Pacers limit what Washington can do offensively.
Wizards Continue Poor Shot Selection and Execution Down the Stretch
Though Washington's two most important offensive weapons are getting their first tastes of playoff basketball, the Wizards boast one of the most playoff-experienced teams left in the field.
That hasn't stopped them from playing like postseason rookies in crunch time this series. Down by three with two-and-a-half minutes to play, Wall and Beal combined to attempt three-pointers on four consecutive possessions after forcing Indiana misses on the other end.
Game 4 had its own set of Washington miscues, including some from the veterans. Inbounding the ball with 1.8 seconds on the shot clock and down 92-91 with 1:21 to play, the pass wound up in Gooden's hands at the three-point line and his heave missed everything. Not a single player cut to the basket.
On the next possession, down three, Wall passed up the most wide-open three-point look he's probably ever had in exchange for a Beal three-pointer with West bearing down on him that clanked. With the shot clock turned off and the score the same, Harrington drove through the lane and missed Washington's third layup in the last two minutes. Beal stole an errant Lance Stephenson pass under the Wizards' basket, earned a pair of free throws and missed the second.
Though it would have taken a miracle had everything gone smoothly, Ariza threw away the inbounds pass with six seconds on the clock and Washington down 95-92, effectively ending the game.
These sorts of miscues, if the game is close, will allow a more composed Pacer team to advance—if they don't make those same mistakes, that is.
Avoid Slow Starts
Double-digit comebacks provide great fodder for the media and elevated blood pressure for the coach.
Indiana has gone into halftime down 13, down two, up one and down 17 through four games. Those numbers leave a lot to be desired for a team with championship aspirations.
Even when the first few minutes have gone well, as they did in Game 4:
Since making 8 of first 9 shots to start the game, Pacers have gone 7 of 28 from field to finish the half.— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) May 12, 2014
Indiana has yet to put up a dominant first half against Washington. Game 3 wasn't much different:
It's a defensive battle at half! Pacers lead Wizards, 34-33, the lowest combined point total in any half this season. George: 11 Pts, 3 Reb— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 10, 2014
That Washington's second-quarter surge in Game 4 came largely from the bench can be interpreted in two ways. You're either terrified that three of the Association's senior citizens carved up Indiana with steals, blocks and alley-oops en route to a 17-point lead. Or you feel confident that the Wizards have to rely on three players who have combined to live more than a century, and probably won't recover in time for a repeat performance.
Regardless, Indiana needs to come out firing, and stay firing for the first 24 minutes and avoid having to manufacture another draining comeback.