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Pacers Find Wizards Up for the Challenge

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 6, 2014 | 6:10 pm

The Pacers know all too well the predicament of losing the first game of a playoff series on your homecourt. They did it just 16 days ago, when they opened their series with Atlanta with a pratfall on their own doorstep, so doing it again on Monday had a familiar ring to it. Not a ring, actually. More like a thud.

They recovered to beat the Hawks in seven games, but repeating that roundabout route to a happy conclusion will be far more difficult a second time. Washington is a demonstrably better team than Atlanta. In fact, there was evidence in its 102-96 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday that it might even be a better team than the Pacers.

It's certainly a happier team at the moment. The Pacers took this one hard.

After talking for a few minutes with reporters, David West, the normally-prolific team leader cut the conversation short. “That's it,” he said. “I'm done. I'm done.”

It's painful when you have to keep answering the same questions over and over. Most of the good ones pertain to Hibbert, the center of attention who endured another game without a single point or rebound. It's getting eerie how a 7-2 All-Star can continually disappear. Hibbert's time was limited to 18 rounded-up minutes by foul trouble on Monday, but that was time enough for five fouls. Saturday's encouraging return to form in Game 7 against the Hawks, when he had 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks, was not the first step on a comeback after all.

The Pacers got away with his lack of productivity against Atlanta – barely – but that sort of cavity is too much to fill against a team as good as the Wizards. It's too much of a physical strain on his teammates, who scramble to fill in his statistical blanks. It's probably too much emotional strain, too, as they constantly have to explain and encourage him.

“We're still with him through this process,” Paul George said. “He's going to find a way, through. We need him now, but I have faith that along the way he's going to find himself. We're a point we're really going to need Roy, and need him now.”

Added West: “He's got to be part of this thing for us to go anywhere.”

Hibbert, who had two scoreless games against the Hawks, could offer little beyond a reprisal of a familiar refrain.

“I got into some foul trouble, then wasn’t as aggressive as I needed to be,” he said. “I’m going to change some things up for the second game. I’m going to look within myself and go out there and figure it out.”

Those looking for silver linings in the harsh black holes of the box score can perhaps find one in Hibbert's postgame demeanor. He looked his questioners in the eye and spoke firmly and directly, rather than hanging his head or looking around the room as he usually does. He said the right things, at least, and sounded determined to back up his words.

There were other elements to the Pacers' loss that can be raised to stem the tide of panic.

They probably were at a disadvantage, having wrapped up their series with Atlanta on Saturday and getting just one day of rest and preparation for this game. Washington had been off since Tuesday, when it eliminated Chicago. It took two days off, then had three practice days. There's also the fact the Pacers tied or won each of the final three quarters. So, if they choose, the optimists can write this one off as the result of a slow start that was caused by a hangover from the drama of Saturday night's closeout victory.

Besides, road wins are nothing new this postseason. They're happening all over the NBA.

Still, the spirit and poise that Washington showed should be a major concern to the Pacers. They chopped a 16-point deficit to six in the third quarter, and had three chances to get closer – a Lance Stephenson layup in traffic, two Luis Scola foul shots and an open Scola baseline jumper – but failed each time. Every time they got close enough to excite their home fans, a Wizard would appear from nowhere to shove them back.

If the Pacers are to win this series, it likely will have to be with superior bench play. Their starting lineup is not superior to Washington's – certainly not when Hibbert leaves a trail of zeroes behind, and probably not when he's at his best, either. The Wizards are reaping the reward of years of prolonged losing. Their backcourt is stocked with the No. 1 pick from the 2010 draft, John Wall, and the No. 3 pick from the 2012 draft, Bradley Beal. Those two combined for 38 points, 12 rebounds, 16 assists and five turnovers. They also have a late-blooming center in Marcin Gortat, (12 points, 15 rebounds), a proven veteran forward in Nene' (15 points, eight rebounds) and a journeyman-turned-star in Trevor Ariza (22 points, 11 in the first quarter).

Washington's bench is not as good as the Pacers, but it doesn't need to be if it's going to get surprise efforts from the likes of Drew Gooden, who contributed 12 points and 13 rebounds in his rounded-up 18 minutes. Gooden was out of the NBA this season until the Wizards signed him in February.

“They have a complete team,” George said. “They've got solid rotation guys. Then their starting five is all the pieces that you need. They've got a star point guard, a great shooting guard, a veteran wing in Ariza. Their bigs (Gortat and Nene), they're both inside-out guys and they play well with one another so I think everything just came together for them. They understand who they are.”

No question, the Wizards are coming of age. They've now won seven consecutive road games, including the final three of their regular season and all three in their series with Chicago. Monday's game was merely the continuation of a trend. They were more energetic. They were more poised. They played faster. They played more physically. They shot slightly better. And, in the best reflection of their aggression, they rebounded dramatically better (53-36). They grabbed or tipped 17 offensive rebounds and outscored the Pacers on second-chance points, 19-5.

They even excelled in the postgame interviews, declining to say anything that might be interpreted as arrogance or assumption.

“We feel like we're capable of winning when we play our style of basketball,” Ariza said.

The Wizards could have won this game on demeanor alone. The coaches and players communicated meaningfully with one another on the bench, and the players on the court excitedly discussed relevant topics among themselves during dead balls. All in all, they were like kids let out for recess, sprinting onto the playground past the jogging Pacers. They led 8-0, and by 13 at the end of the quarter. That was all they would need.

Still, it would be foolish to start digging a grave for the Pacers. There were fateful elements to Washington's win, unlikely to be repeated. Ariza, for example, hit all six of his three-point shots. He hit 41 percent of his attempts in the regular season and 46 percent in the first round against Chicago, but even that is a far cry from 100 percent. Beal, who finished with a game-high 25 points, had his outlier moments as well, such as when he hit a high-lofting three-pointer over Luis Scola's outstretched arms from the left corner midway through the fourth quarter, after George's three-point play had brought the Pacers within six.

And, as prolonged and painful as it was, the Pacers' series with Atlanta should serve as a reminder of their procrastinating nature. They don't rush into things, whether it's a game or a series, but they usually rise to the occasion when a crisis arises. They were down 1-0 to the Hawks and won Game 2, were down 2-1 and won Game 4, and were down 3-2 and won Games 6 and 7. They did the same thing late in the regular season, interrupting their swoon to beat Chicago, Miami and Oklahoma City.

“It just brings our guard up that we can't put ourselves in these predicaments, can't put ourselves in these corners,” George said. “We should have learned that from the first series. It's going to be hard, going to be a tough series for us. But we can't allow ourselves to be put in these holes.”

Too late now. They're probably capable of digging out again. But only if Washington offers some cooperation and Hibbert grabs a shovel.

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