Pacers Ready to Move On to Game 6

by Wheat Hotchkiss | @Wheat_Hotchkiss

May 15, 2014 | 1:45 p.m.

WASHINGTON – The Pacers headed into Game 5 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse with so much momentum, carrying a 3-1 series lead over the Wizards and coming off a road sweep at the Verizon Center over the weekend. The same national pundits who had left Indiana for dead after they dropped Game 1 a week earlier were now spouting off about how the Pacers were headed back to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight season.

But all that momentum didn’t amount to much on Tuesday night. The Wizards came out with the urgency and desperation of a team playing to save its season, and they did just that, rolling to a convincing 102-79 victory.

Wizards center Marcin Gortat had 31 points and 16 rebounds. All-Star point guard John Wall found his jump shot and scored 27. Washington dominated the boards, outrebounding Indiana 18-4 on the offensive glass and 62-23 overall.

So now, we find ourselves back in D.C. for Game 6. The Pacers remain in good shape – only eight teams in NBA history have ever come back to win a playoff series after trailing 3-1 – but the emphatic nature of the Wizards’ Game 5 victory has raised questions of how Indiana could get beaten so handily at home after three straight victories.

"It’s hard to beat a team four times in a row,” Pacers forward David West said following Wednesday’s practice back in Indianapolis. “And I thought that they came out and played a little bit more desperate than we did. The urgency was on their end. We relaxed – I thought we let our guard down and just didn’t take the fight to them like we had the previous three games.”

There was no question that Washington played with a greater sense of urgency on Tuesday. While many may have expected the relatively inexperienced Wizards to wilt in Game 5, they instead appeared focused and relaxed at that morning’s shootaround.

Gortat said the two days since dropping Game 4 had felt like “hell” to him. He certainly played like someone had lit a fire underneath him in Game 5.

The Pacers now find themselves in a similar position to where Washington was two days ago – on the road coming off a disappointing loss at home.

At Wednesday’s practice, head coach Frank Vogel said he wouldn’t mind “if our guys are going to carry a little bit of a bad taste in their mouth into (Game 6).”

Added All-Star forward Paul George: “It wasn’t like they beat us on a buzzer beater or something. They came in and manhandled us and really just destroyed us in every part of the game. So there should be something in the back of our mind going into Game 6.”

But by Thursday morning’s shootaround at the Verizon Center, the team appeared ready to put their loss behind them.

“We really couldn’t take much from that game,” West said.

Point guard George Hill succinctly concurred: “It’s basketball. It happens.”

To a man, the Pacers agreed that they didn’t match Washington’s effort and energy in Game 5. Players made frequent use of one particular phrase to describe their lackluster performance: “for whatever reason.” Here’s a small sampling:

“We just, for whatever reason, didn’t have our normal pop (in Game 5).” –West at Wednesday’s practice

“We just didn’t match (their intensity), for whatever reason, and the game really got out of control.” – George on Wednesday

“For whatever reason, we just didn’t show up to play. We’ve got to put together a better effort and a better performance tonight.” – West at shootaround on Thursday morning

It may be a flippant phrase, but in many ways, it’s the perfect descriptor for the Pacers’ mindset. When there are breakdowns in execution, it is important to identify those mistakes and figure out how to fix them. But when the problem is failing to match an opponent’s energy, the reason for that breakdown doesn’t matter. All you can do is try to clear your mind and come out with greater urgency in the next game.

For whatever reason (see what I did there?), the Pacers have consistently played their best basketball this postseason when backed into a corner. They dropped Games 1, 3, and 5 against Atlanta, but bounced back each time. They picked up three straight wins over the Wizards only after relinquishing homecourt advantage by dropping Game 1.

What is it about this team that it seems to play better when facing adversity?

“It draws us closer,” George said. “We understand it’s not a big margin for errors. We play poised, under control. Everybody’s just on the same page at that point, when our backs (are) against the wall. So that’s why I’m encouraged that we’re going to go get Game 6.”

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that all the Pacers need to do to win Game 6 is come out with greater urgency. There were plenty of problems with execution in Game 5 that need to be addressed.

Vogel attributed the large rebounding margin to “a lot of factors,” the chief ones being the Wizards playing with greater physicality and the Pacers’ breakdowns in defensive assignments that caused a “chain reaction” that left players free to crash the glass for offensive rebounds.

Gortat and Wall both had huge games. Vogel pointed out that Gortat had excelled against the Chicago Bulls’ frontcourt in the first round, while Hill said of Wall’s performance, “He’s an All-Star. He’s going to have games like that.”

Still, the Pacers can’t let two players hurt them to that degree in Game 6.

On the offensive end, the Indiana has tried to control the pace of the game by playing slower, but George admitted Wednesday that they were too slow getting into their offensive sets, which led to some forced shots with the shot clock winding down.

West said the team needs to limit “turnovers for touchdowns,” which lead to easy points on the other end for Wall and Bradley Beal, both of whom excel in transition.

The Pacers also didn’t get much from Roy Hibbert, who finished with four points and two rebounds in Game 5 after averaging 19.7 points and 7.7 boards in the Pacers’ three straight wins. Vogel insisted Thursday that Hibbert’s defensive production is more important than what he gives them on offense, but Hibbert himself said he needs to play better.

“I take responsibility for how I played (in Game 5), and I’d like to bring more of an effort, more passion out there,” Hibbert said. “We have another chance to close out, and it will be a different Roy than what you saw last night.”

The Pacers aren’t the ones facing elimination, but they are facing significantly more pressure now than they were in Game 5. Not only are they playing on the road after a disappointing performance, but the Miami Heat advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals last night, eliminating the Brooklyn Nets. If the Pacers win tonight, they would get two days off to prepare for Miami. If this series goes to seven games, the winner will have just one day to get ready for a Heat team coming off five days of rest.

But for now, Indiana’s focus is squarely on the Wizards. Whether they keep it in the back of their minds or play with a short memory, the Pacers know they need to play much better in Game 6 than they did the last time out.

Just take it from David West: “Our grit, our determination, our will, what we bring to the game in terms of effort has to go to another level.”

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