The Washington Wizards hadn't won a home game in the Eastern Conference semifinals since 1979. Paul George made sure it stayed that way. And the Wizards' stars weren't experienced enough to do anything about it.
George's Indiana Pacers had to battle back from a big deficit to win this one, and it showed that Washington's best players—namely John Wall and Bradley Beal—simply weren't used to being in these kinds of scenarios.
George won this game, but the Wizards let him do it. It was theirs to lose, and they lost it because they haven't been in these situations together before. After the game, Wizards head coach Randy Wittman didn't want to hear about inexperience (per TNT's postgame coverage): "Why do I want to talk about inexperience? All that is is an excuse... There's no excuse here. I don't want our guys looking for an excuse."
The Wizards did their best impersonation of Indiana during the second quarter, holding head coach Frank Vogel's team to just 11 points en route to a 55-38 halftime lead. Washington pressured the ball, forced turnovers and exploded in transition. Indiana was on its heels the entire quarter, looking every bit as lethargic as Washington had looked on Friday night.
But Indiana methodically pushed back in the third quarter, cutting Washington's 19-point lead to just one point with a 15-2 run. George had 13 points in the quarter. That set up a decisive fourth quarter in which the Wizards were essentially battling for their playoff lives.
George quickly tied the game in the fourth on a three-point play, willing his Pacers back into the game from all over the floor.
He finished with 39 points and 12 rebounds, making 7-of-10 three-pointers and 8-of-10 free throws.
After the game, Vogel praised his effort and endurance.
The same Wizards second unit that broke open the second quarter again fueled a mini-run in the fourth, scoring nine-straight points after the game was tied at 74 all. Rarely used pieces like Al Harrington and Drew Gooden were instrumental to Washington holding on to its edge.
Indiana would climb back into it once again, taking a one-point lead with over two minutes remaining and eventually finishing on a 19-to-7 run. George was too much down the stretch, and Indiana's defense returned to form just in time.
Washington looked utterly helpless when Indiana's defense turned up its intensity. You could attribute that to a talent differential, perhaps to coaching. But the real culprits are chemistry and experience.
The Pacers have been at this together longer. They know each other, and they know how to win in the playoffs.
Inexperience has been a problem for the Wizards all series long. They took ill-advised threes in the waning moments of Game 2. They failed to match Indiana's energy in the second half of Game 3. And execution down the stretch was lacking in Game 4.
As the game slowed down to a half-court pace, Washington's offense stagnated. The Wizards were forced into tough shots, and the easy baskets Washington generated in transition during the first half dried up with the game on the line.
Wittman all but conceded inexperience would be a concern back in April, per The Washington Times' Zac Boyer: "I’d like to sit [Wall] down and really give him an opportunity to understand what this is all going to be like, but you know, you’ve got to experience it. You can’t talk about it. It doesn’t even come close."
Boyer noted that it took these Wizards some time to develop and find their way during the regular season:
Washington, likewise, had its own growing pains. The Wizards (43-38) battled inconsistency throughout much of the season, finally emerging with a winning record for the first time in early February. They finished the season with victories in eight of their last 11 games, including a four-game winning streak.
Though it may be counterproductive for the Wizards to acknowledge excuses, it's fair game for third-party analysis. There are, after all, reasons Washington finds itself down 3-1 in this series.
John Wall has not had a series to remember.
The 23-year-old is averaging just 11.5 points on 31 percent shooting in the semifinals. He had just 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting on Sunday night. Over the last two games against Indiana, Wall has combined for 12 turnovers.
His inexperience has been exposed in shot-selection, decision-making and ability to run a half-court offense. Insofar as Washington's execution has suffered down key stretches, Washington's floor general deserves the lion's share of the blame.
In fairness, Wall was pivotal during the first round, averaging nearly 19 points against an undermanned and outgunned Chicago Bulls team.
But the stakes have changed. And so has the opposition. Wall hasn't responded, looking helpless to get anything going without lanes to the basket. Thanks to Indiana's defense, there have rarely been any lanes to the basket.
When the Pacers dictate tempo, Wall's use-value plummets. He's at his best in the open floor, running with wings Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza in transition.
Speaking of Beal, it's worth noting that inexperience has yet to hold him back on the offensive end. He's averaged 19.5 points in the series. Though his shooting was off in Game 3—along with the rest of the Wizards—the 20-year-old has remained Washington's most consistent option. He's also been their best option down the stretch.
But neither Beal nor Ariza has been able to stop George, especially on Sunday night. It looks as though Wittman has run out of answers on the defensive end.
There were moments in Game 4 when the Wizards had the upper hand defensively. Indiana turned the ball over 18 times, and a flurry of those came in the second quarter when Washington's reserves turned up the pressure.
Wittman deserves credit for showing some faith in Harrington and Gooden—Nene Hilario and Marcin Gortat were just 6-of-17 from the field on the night.
But Wittman also deserves a raised eyebrow for losing control of this game. Maybe he didn't go to those reserves soon enough in the third. Maybe he stayed with them too long as the lead evaporated in the fourth.
Either way, at no point was Wittman able to accomplish his two primary objectives: slowing down Paul George and getting his team into any kind of half-court rhythm.
It's worth remembering that Wittman has never coached in the postseason until this year. Much as his players can be tagged as inexperienced, so too can Wittman. He's done a nice job with this team over the course of the regular season, and there's no doubt he's surpassed expectations.
But he may be approaching the limits of his coaching acumen.
Wittman will have at least one more chance to prove otherwise. He's got to find ways to score on Indiana, even when the transition offense isn't happening. That may mean getting the ball to Beal in positions where he can be even more successful. It may mean looking more to the inside game, where Hilario and Gortat became forgotten options in Game 4.
It will definitely mean some adjustments. The status quo isn't working.
Whether it's Wittman's fault or something more collective, this much is certain: The Wizards don't yet have that killer instinct. They couldn't put the Pacers away on Sunday night, and they had similar issues dealing a knockout blow in Game 2 with Indiana on the ropes. The Washington Post's Mike Wise described that game as "an instructional tool on how better to attack a vulnerable opponent on their home floor in a game the Pacers badly needed if they had any realistic plans of winning this series."
By now Randy Wittman should have all the instructional tools and teachable moments he needs, but will it make any difference? The momentum has swung and now the Wizards find themselves on the ropes with one more opportunity to figure this out.
Last Chance to Gel
Outside of its backcourt and coach, Washington's personnel actually aren't all that inexperienced. Part of the problem is that the Pacers have just been together longer. They've battled together in the postseason. They've had plenty of time to gel.
That's not the case for Washington. Gortat wasn't acquired until this season. Nene missed 29 games this season. Beal is still just a baby by NBA standards, only in his second year. And as much raw talent as John Wall has, he's only been at this whole floor general thing for four seasons at the pro level.
He still has a thing or two to learn, and his outside jumper remains in need of major improvement. But more importantly, the Wizards collectively still have a thing or two to learn about one another. They simply haven't had adequate time to learn one another's preferences and tendencies.
It's probably too late for them to develop that kind of chemistry this time around.
The Wizards' fate is all but certain at this point, but we should be sober in our assessments of how far they've come. Many didn't expect them to make it this far. Many didn't expect them to make such easy work of the Bulls.
By all accounts, this has been an overachieving and successful campaign for the Wizards. This is no time for them to hang their heads. It's time for them to pay attention and watch a more polished team show them how it's done.
Chances are they'll be back in 2015 to demonstrate what they've learned.