Eastern Semi-Final: 1) Indiana Pacers vs. 5) Washington Wizards
Regular Season: Pacers 2-1
Of the eight elite clubs remaining in these fabulous playoffs it's not a stretch at all to suggest that the Pacers look the least impressive, not only for scraping barely past a 38-win Atlanta squad missing their best player in Al Horford, but also for the pathetic way they've played over the second half of the season. After a 33-8 record over the first 41 games, the Pacers went 23-18 over the final 41.
(It should be noted that's still a 46-win pace, which would still be better than the 44 Washington managed, so consider that when you poo-poo the Pacers' collapse.)
Obviously any discussion involving the Pacers begins with the fall from grace of center Roy Hibbert. It's rationalizing in the extreme to suggest that Atlanta's quirky offensive scheme, featuring a "5-out" approach where even center Pero Antic was a three-point threat, rendered Hibbert irrelevant for the series.
Here's the thing though. Antic scored all of 22 points in the series, shooting 16.7 percent overall and 12 percent from downtown. Paul Millsap didn't light the world on fire either, shooting below 40 percent overall and 33 percent from three. They weren't the ideal match-up for Hibbert, to be sure, but don't get it twisted -- the reason he was unplayable in the series was on offense, where he was a tire fire and the Pacers with him just couldn't score, just like they haven't been able to score the past three months. Hibbert should've dominated the undersized Hawks.
I continue to speculate that he's just not healthy; his gait looks labored and pained. Even though Hibbert in his prime would never be confused with a Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson, these days he's moving more like a Mark Eaton. Maybe it's plantar fasciitis or a broken bone in his foot, but it has to be something. A guy can't fall off this sharply, this quickly, for no reason.
The conventional wisdom is that Hibbert will be more engaged -- and thus better -- against a Washington team featuring a traditional lineup, with center Marcin Gortat and another skilled big in Nene. I don't buy into this line of thinking at all. The whole reason Hibbert ever rose into prominence in the NBA was because of the way he dominated the small-ball Miami Heat on both ends of the floor. If he couldn't do the same against Atlanta, why would he be expected to against a team with bigs who can, you know, play?
Nene was even better in the first round than counterpart David West, whom he's slightly bigger and stronger than. Gortat, meanwhile, is All-World compared to Antic and far more athletic than he looks, a master dive man on the pick-and-roll who can finish with either hand. Gortat doesn't have the quickness advantage against many bigs, but he surely does against Hibbert. There's also the possibility that Wizards coach Randy Wittman, noticing the success that Atlanta had going small against the Pacers, will elect to go small himself, playing someone like Martell Webster at the three with Trevor Ariza sliding over to the four and Nene at the five. He can also pair Andre Miller in the backcourt with John Wall and slide Bradley Beal to the three.
Also of concern for the Pacers is that Washington's best defender, Trevor Ariza, plays the same position as their best player, Paul George. If George doesn't have a huge series then I just don't see how the Pacers will produce enough offense to hang in here. They'll certainly need more from the bench, where Luis Scola and Evan Turner were excised from the rotation the last couple of games against the Hawks.
I think the series will come down to the guards. Lance Stephenson and George Hill will have to figure out a way to match the production of Wall and Beal. If they can lock those guys up defensively, then the Pacers will have enough to win another ugly, rock fight of a series. If the youngsters shake loose, then the Pacers won't have enough in the front court or the bench to compete.
If Indy can win the first two games then maybe the "happy to be here aura" will overwhelm the youthful Wizards, but all it will take is a road split to make the Washingtonians believe. I was leaning toward the Pacers before the playoffs started, but I've just seen too many bad signs for them to keep the faith. I don't trust Hibbert, I don't trust Hill and I don't trust that bench. The Wiz just have more guys going well right now, and a better chemistry.
Wizards in six.
Fun Fact: Luis Scola was benched even though he ranked second on the Pacers in PER and WS/48 in the series. I think Frank Vogel is more lucky than good.