POSTED: May 4, 2014 11:52 AM ET
UPDATED: May 4, 2014 7:06 PM ET
John Wall is the engine that makes the young Wizards go.
If he could do it over again this time, Paul George would stop smiling and snarl a time or two.
"I just wish we all would have held each other more accountable with what was going on," George said of what he'd change if he could go back to the days and weeks immediately after All-Star Weekend when the his Indiana Pacers turned from a juggernaut into a basket case. "I wish we owned up to not playing well and took it from there."
The Pacers figured it out in time to make their third straight Eastern Conference semifinals appearance, where they'll take on the Washington Wizards. Game 1 is Monday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The mistakes of the past almost caught the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed in the first round, where a 38-win Atlanta Hawks team backed them into a corner during the initial stages of what was supposed to a long and arduous playoff run. They survived that scare, courtesy of that Game 7 on their home floor, of course.
Inside Look at Wizards and Pacers Series
Surviving a close-out Game 6 in Atlanta and leaning on that home-court advantage against the Hawks is one thing. Doing it in the conference semifinals, against a Wizards team that looked fantastic in upsetting the Chicago Bulls in five games in their first round series, is a completely different challenge.
John Wall and Bradley Beal raised eyebrows in their first playoff appearance, outworking and outplaying their veteran counterparts in Chicago with relative ease. Nene and Marcin Gortat pounded the Bulls inside, going after NBA Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah.
So George and the Pacers know that they are dealing with a group this time around that has talent matching their confidence. That's why the acknowledgement of what wrong in their season is such a crucial part of this next step. It's time to stop talking as if nothing changed from their 33-8 start to the regular season to their regular season-ending slide to their near season-imploding struggle in the first round.
"We reached a level of success, too early, and really just got complacent from there," George said. "It shouldn't be tough to get that back. We earned the No. 1 seed. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That's motivation enough for us to play well. We just haven't done as consistently as we'd have liked to and I think we are more than capable of."
The Wizards will get the snarl and not the smile ...
1. Is Roy Hibbert really back? He better be with Nene and Marcin Gortat set to continue their domination from their first-round series with the Chicago Bulls against the 7-foot-2 Hibbert. The All-Star big man was a non-factor for much of the Pacers' first-round series against Atlanta, a team that spread the floor and posed matchup nightmares for Hibbert. If he wants to make amends for what he didn't do against the the Hawks, this would be the ideal time to do so.
2. How will the Pacers deal with John Wall if they couldn't slow down Jeff Teague? The same strategy used to try to neutralize Teague, switching Paul George on him instead of George Hill, has to be the order of business again. Only this time, Pacers coach Frank Vogel cannot wait until Wall is in a lather and shredding his team's defense.
3. Did the extra rest dull the Wizards' senses after the show they put on to beat Chicago? The Wizards finished off the Bulls on Tuesday night, but the layoff won't be a problem. Wizards coach Randy Wittman made it a point to keep his team sharp while also making sure to mix in just enough rest to keep a balance.
4. Does the Pacers' experience of the past three playoffs pay dividends against a rookie playoff crew from Washington? You would hope so if you're the Pacers. This is their third straight trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals. They've got a core group that has been together long enough to use that collective experience to their advantage.
5. Is what we saw from Bradley Beal in the first round his playoff baseline or ceiling? Baseline! Beal is just getting started in a career that should include plenty of future playoff successes and highlights. Matching up against Lance Stephenson will give us another glimpse into his competitive drive.
The Pacers are capable of playing inside-out through David West and Paul George, but are actually at their best when they crank up the tempo and have both George and Stephenson attacking from the perimeter. But the risk factors are much higher when they play that way, so Vogel prefers a more measured approach through George and West. And against a Wizards team that will match or trump their athleticism at every position, that's probably a wise choice.
The Pacers have a nice change of pace pair off the bench in C.J. Watson and Luis Scola, who saved them during critical stretches in that first-round series against Atlanta with timely shots and the ability to create and score when seemingly no one else could. They'll be counted on again this time around.
John Wall has found a way to blend his raw speed and the chaos that creates for a defense with a pure point guard's mentality that some folks didn't think he possessed earlier in his career. But make no mistake, Wall fuels the Wizards' attack by using his speed and vision to attack the defense and create opportunities that would not otherwise be there. Bradley Beal is the primary beneficiary, playing off of Wall perfectly on the wing.
Nene was an absolute monster against the Bulls in the first round. He attacked Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah head on in that series, setting the tone from the start as the Wizards served notice early that they intended to attack the Bulls at their strength.
George loves to work with the ball in his hands with time winding down. So does West. And the Pacers have the luxury of choosing between the two of them when they need a big basket or to manufacture a possession late in a close game. George and West are proven finishers.
The Wizards have a young sharpshooter in Beal, who can also work off the dribble and get his own shot if need be. But they have a true floor general in their All-Star point guard, Wall, who has worked his tail off to become a better and more efficient scorer. The Wizards go as he goes.
It's not fair to anyone else in this category with Lance Stephenson in the mix. He plays so hard on both ends of the floor, even if he doesn't play as efficiently and with as much poise as Vogel would like from him. Stephenson is the emotional powder keg for this bunch and they'll need him against a legit Wizards team.
Trevor Ariza showed off his championship pedigree in the series against the Bulls and he'll be crucial in this series by drawing the defensive assignment on George. You know Ariza is up for it, he always is. If he can find way to neutralize George, the Wizards have a shot.
The Pacers didn't inspire much confidence with that first-round series that went to a Game 7 against Atlanta. The Wizards can attack the Pacers in so many different ways, ways the Hawks simply could not. But it won't matter in end. Pacers in 7.