Monday, May 5, 2014

East Round 2 Preview: (1) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Washington Wizards

Can Indiana solve their Roy Hibbert problem in time? (Photo: Mark Runyon; Flickr)
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

By the Numbers

56-26 (35-6 Home; 21-20 Road)
PPG: 96.7 (24th); PPG Allowed: 92.4 (2nd)
+4.3 Average Scoring Margin (7th)
Off Rating: 101.4 (22nd); Def Rating: 96.8 (1st)
+4.6 Net Efficiency Rating (7th)

44-38 (22-19 Home, 22-19 Road)
PPG: 100.7 (16th); PPG Allowed: 99.4 (9th)
+1.3 Average Scoring Margin (15th)
Off Rating: 103.3 (18th); Def Rating: 102.4 (T-9th)
+0.9 Net Efficiency Rating (15th)

Season Series: Indiana 2-1
Indiana 93, Washington 73 (November 29)
Indiana 93, Washington 66 (January 10)
Washington 91, Indiana 78 (March 28)

Players To Watch

Bradley Beal

Beal answered the call in Round 1, improving on his regular season numbers across the board - his free throw rate more than doubled, he was more accurate from three, he was more accurate from two, he had more shot attempts in the paint, and his rebound and assist numbers were both up (slightly). And he did this against Jimmy Butler (a premier wing defender) with Joakim Noah (the Defensive Player of The Year) patrolling the paint.

In this series, he'll likely have even easier matchups - Lance Stephenson isn't the defender that Butler is, and Roy Hibbert has been missing in action for months (more on that later). You could make the argument that Indiana's team defense as a collective unit is better than Chicago's, but that argument is propped up by Indiana's historic stretch to open the season. From March 1 through the end of the season, in fact, Chicago was the league's best defense, while Indiana fell to just 9th.

If Beal can continue his impressive play from Round 1, this series goes from somewhat of a coin flip to one that Washington should probably win.

Roy Hibbert

What happened to Hibbert, I have no idea. But something happened. Before the All-Star break, he averaged roughly 12 points and 8 rebounds on 46 percent shooting with Defensive Player of The Year-caliber defense. Since the All-Star break, those numbers have plummeted to 9 points and 5 rebounds on 39 percent shooting, and his defense has been, well, not great.

Those numbers dropped even further in Round 1 - so far that he ended up recording zero points and zero rebounds in just 12 minutes played in Game 5. His size on defense was rendered basically useless by Atlanta's spread offensive attack - Atlanta forced him to defend smaller, quicker players in space, and he had no hope. He bounced back in Game 7, really his only positive game of the series, but the previous six games (plus the 30-odd games before that to close the regular season) are probably a better indicator of what he's able to contribute at this point.

Washington doesn't have the spread, five-out attack that Atlanta did - Hibbert will spend most of his time defending Marcin Gortat, presumably, who is not a threat to shoot outside 15 feet and isn't particularly fleet afoot. This means Hibbert might actually be able to stay on the court in this series, but given how he's played, that might not be a good thing.

The Case For Indiana

For most of the last few months, it seemed like the Pacers just didn't care. They were lethargic on both ends and ended up getting spanked a few times. It culminated in Game 5 against Atlanta, when the Hawks held a 30-point lead at 80-50 midway through the 3rd quarter. Maybe it took losing by 30 at home to one of the worst playoff teams in a decade to kick-start the Pacers again, but after that point, Indiana outscored Atlanta by 39 points over the next nine and a half quarters, roughly +16.4 points per 48 minutes.

So, if we assume that the Pacers have finally "woken up," things could be looking up. Another good sign for them is that Washington isn't going to shoot 230 threes in a series, or even come close. Atlanta shot nearly 33 threes per game in Round 1, compared to Washington's 16. Washington might take a few cues from Atlanta's success in Round 1, but don't expect them to all of a sudden start chucking indiscriminately from 25 feet. A more traditional offense from Washington would play into the hands of Indiana's defense. Granted I said the same thing about Washington's traditional offense playing into the hands of Chicago's defense in the last round, but Indiana at their best is certainly better than Chicago at their best.

Best-Case Scenario: The scare in Round 1 was exactly the kick in the ass they needed. Roy Hibbert finally gets his head on straight and Indiana returns to early-season form. John Wall is better than Jeff Teague, but Washington's inferior floor spacing don't allow him the same freedoms, and Indiana is able to contain him. Washington's reluctance to bomb threes the way Atlanta did sputters their offense a bit, and Indiana wins in five.

The Case for Washington

They just beat Chicago in convincing fashion, and Indiana is pretty much a carbon-copy of Chicago, only worse on both ends of the floor over the last three months. If you thought Chicago had trouble scoring against the Wizards, imagine how much trouble the Pacers will have, given how much trouble they had scoring against Atlanta's mediocre-at-best defense. Washington isn't quite Atlanta on offense; they don't have a high-variance attack, but they do have big men that can step away from the basket and make jump shots, and Nene showed in Round 1 that he's capable of winning matchups he's not expected to win. Both teams showed in Round 1 that home-court advantage is pretty meaningless (between the 12 combined games that Indiana and Washington played, the road teams were 8-4), so even on the road, Washington has a puncher's chance.

Best-Case Scenario: The Indiana turnaround in Games 5, 6, and 7 were a mirage - they're just as bad as they've been since the All-Star break. Washington's backcourt quickness causes the Pacers the same problems Atlanta's did, and a DOA Indiana offense struggles even worse against a top-10 defensive unit than they did against Atlanta's league-average outfit. The Wizards steal Game 1 and then a pivotal Game 5, both in Indiana, and come back home to win the series in 6.

The Pick

Pacers in 6.

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