The Pacers limped through the 1st round against a Hawks team that opened the floor with shooters and rode a high-variance offensive strategy to Game 7, where their run was stopped by the resurrection of Roy Hibbert and the brilliant play of Paul George. The five-out approach put a wrench in Indiana’s core defensive principles, but they won’t have to worry about that against the Wizards.
Washington matches the Hibbert-David West pairing that Indiana throws out with its own big man duo of Nene and Marcin Gortat. Against those two the Pacers will be able to maintain their defensive philosophy and make it a lot harder for John Wall to get into the paint. While both Nene and Gortat can step out to 15 feet and hit jumpers, they are still close enough to the paint that Hibbert can hang back and clog up the lane without sacrificing wide-open shots.
That said, the scoring options available to the Wizards are far more potent than what Indiana has faced so far. Everyone on the floor is a threat, especially when the starting five is on the court. Nene and Gortat have varied offensive games that make opposing bigs work hard, while the guard pairing of Wall and Bradley Beal has come together nicely this season on the strength of improved perimeter shooting from Wall and general maturation from Beal.
The bench mob looks like the core of a 40-win team from 2004, but they’ve been relatively effective as a group. All three of Andre Miller, Drew Gooden, and Al Harrington joined or rejoined the team around midseason to provide a boost, though Harrington barely played in the Chicago series and is unlikely to see much time due to Nene’s presence and his own shortcomings on defense. Add in wing shooting from Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster, and the Wizards have a diverse and deep offense, which they’ll need against the imposing defense of the Pacers, especially if Hibbert has truly returned to the land of the living.
Washington will need good shooting from the aforementioned wings and the starting guard duo to keep things loose inside. One saving grace is Indiana’s struggles to contain perimeter penetration from waterbug point guards. Wall doesn’t quite fit the bill, but his speed will be too much at times for the likes of George Hill to handle, and Paul George could find himself pressed into guarding Wall, much as he had to do against Atlanta’s Jeff Teague.
The Pacers’ defense is a known commodity – unless you happen to have a huge, jump-shooting Macedonian center, they will control the paint and force tough midrange shots. The real question is what to make of their offense.
The twin-post strategy works great for the defense, but on the other end of the floor it creates a ton of spacing issues if not executed flawlessly. Let’s just say that it’s been awhile since Indiana’s offense has been flawlessly executed. Hibbert in particular has fallen off, so much so that he basically disappeared for much of the Atlanta series, and when he started hitting shots in Game 7 it came as a huge surprise. The dude was an All-Star – a few short hooks over the woefully undersized Paul Millsap should be a given.
Hill’s shooting struggles from deep didn’t help, as the defense started laying off him to further pack the paint. That limited space for the bigs and for Paul George and Lance Stephenson to drive. Paul George managed to overcome it, and his offense was all that kept the team afloat on that end for vast stretches of the 1st round.
Against the size of Washington, Hibbert’s job will be that much harder, and he will have to dig deep to find ways to contribute without clogging things up. West will also be more pressed going up against Nene, who has improved an already solid defense in his return. Even Paul George will be tested with a matchup against Ariza and his underrated perimeter defense.
Stephenson offers the best hope among the starters for a real mismatch. He can post up the smaller Beal, and if he is able to overpower him it will open up perimeter looks and cutting lanes for the bigs. A few extra open looks could get Hill back on track, providing extra spacing the offense desperately needs. It’s not exactly what you’d want from a team with designs on a possible Finals run, but it could be enough to get past the Wizards.
The two benches shouldn’t factor in too much. Indiana will spell Hibbert with Ian Mahinmi and will give C.J. Watson some run as a backup guard, but Frank Vogel lost faith with Evan Turner as the series went along, and Luis Scola’s defensive issues make him hard to play too heavily. Washington’s bench will largely consist of the trio of forward Trevor Booker, Webster, and Miller, with some Gooden thrown in. There’s nothing there to really move the dial unless Webster gets hot from three or the arena ends up in a time warp.
This series will come down to how well two superior defenses match up against lesser offenses. When Washington has the ball, that will mean a balanced offensive attack attempting to decode the league’s toughest defense. If you can time it to only tune in on those possessions you’ll be doing yourself a favor; the other half of the matchup could get ugly. Nene is the X-factor for the Wiz. If he stays healthy (and out of trouble with the league) his solid team play could push Wall and company over the top of the floundering Pacers and into the Conference Finals.