NBA Playoff Preview: Indiana Pacers vs. Washington Wizards

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SEASON RECORDS

Indiana Pacers: 56-26

Washington Wizards: 44-38

KEY INJURIES

Indiana Pacers: Andrew Bynum (out indefinitely, knee)

Washington Wizards: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Indiana Pacers: Offense 101.5 (22nd in the NBA), Defense 96.7 (1st in the NBA)

Washington Wizards: Offense 103.3 (18th in NBA), Defense 102.4 (10th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How much can/will the Wizards stretch the Pacers?

The Hawks took Indiana to seven games by stretching the floor, pulling Roy Hibbert out of the paint and gunning 3-pointers.

That was Atlanta’s identity. It’s not exactly the Wizards’.

Washington’s four most-used bigs – Marcin Gortat, Nene, Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin – lack range to shoot from the perimeter. And typically, the Wizards used two of them at a time.

In a first-round win over the Bulls, Gortat, Nene and Booker (Seraphin didn’t make the rotation) were Washington’s power forward-center combination 84 percent of the time. In the regular-season, the Wizards weren’t quite as dependent on a non-shooting PF-C combo, but they still used one 65 percent of the time.

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Fortunately for the Wizards, they have a couple bigs with shooting range on the roster: Al Harrington and Drew Gooden. Those two played together frequently, building a bit of chemistry and making them more effective in tandem Trevor Ariza can also play small-ball power forward.

So, the Wizards can definitely stretch the floor at times. The main question is how much they’re willing to alter their rotation to do it more.

Would Randy Wittman do something radical – staring Harrington and Gooden – and force the Pacers to make the adjustments they’re reluctant to make? Harrington and Gooden playing together at any point would wrinkle Indiana’s preferred scheme, but if they play together with Hibbert and a tradition power forward (David West or Luis Scola) in the game, it would go much further.

Wittman should deploy Harrington and Gooden primarily against Hibbert, but matching rotations could be difficult. Doing so to begin halves would be the simplest – and most daring – way to do it.

The Wizards might not have to go to such extreme measures, but the goal – stretching the floor – should play a big factor in this series.

2) Will the Pacers protect the ball?

The Pacers are not a good passing team, and the Wizards excelled at forcing turnovers during the regular season.

Against Chicago’s limited offense, the Wizards didn’t take quite as many chances going for turnovers. They just played sound defense and let the Bulls miss shots.

How will Washington approach the Pacers’ never-good, lately imploding offense? The question might be decided on the other end of the floor.

If the Wizards can score against Indiana’s once-stout defense, they can afford to lower variance defensively. If they can’t, they might need to go for turnovers and the fastbreak points steals generate – even if that strategy allows the Pacers more layups and dunks due to out-of-position defenders.

3) Have Roy Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers lost their mental edge?

Indiana finished the season with a 10-13 stretch and then struggled more than most expected in a first-round win over the Hawks. No Pacer has fallen harder than Hibbert, who went from All-Star to nearly benched.

But Vogel stuck with the center, and Hibbert rewarded that faith with 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in a Game 7 win over Atlanta. Unquestionably, the Hawks were a bad matchup for Hibbert, but that doesn’t explain his second-half slide. It’s tough to say exactly where Hibbert stands entering this series.

Maybe rallying to win from down 2-1 and 3-2 to Atlanta has righted the Pacers’ ship. More likely, they remain fragile.

Where is Hibbert’s confidence? Where is Indiana’s? Where the answers fall on the spectrum could determine the series.

PREDICTION

For most of the season, the Pacers were the better team. But it matters only which is better now.

Wizards in 7

Cavaliers’ Kendrick Perkins not into “all that new stuff” like Chewbacca

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Chewbacca was at Game 3 in Cleveland Saturday. Sitting courtside.

Why? Because growing up on Kashyyyk he played a little hoop and admires LeBron James‘ skill? Because Drake gave him the tickets? Maybe. I mean, it’s not like that was just a clever little publicity stunt for a movie.

After the Cavaliers’ win, Kevin Love decided to make a little joke of it with noted humorist Kendrick Perkins, and it went over as well as expected (with Dave McMenamin of ESPN catching it).

That’s vintage Perkins.

Celtics’ Terry Rozier on Game 3: “We needed to get our butts whooped”

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Cleveland dominated Game 3 Saturday night. They played harder, to start. The Cavaliers’ defensive pressure on the ball was better, they were sharper rotating out to shooters and covering passing lanes. Cleveland’s role players stepped up and helped LeBron James.

Boston, meanwhile, wilted in the face of that pressure Saturday, something it has done a few times on the road these playoffs. The Celtics got away from the things that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guard Terry Rozier put it more bluntly, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:

“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.

Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”

Cleveland is a championship team — from LeBron James on down through the core guys, they all have rings. They have been down before, and heading home it was expected they would play with force. Cleveland’s back was against the wall and they responded.

From the Celtics’ perspective, they also got a little too fat and happy and were not ready for what the Cavaliers came with in Game 3.

Now the pressure is on Boston to push back, to get back to their level of execution and do it under pressure. Make the Cavaliers prove the improved defensive effort was not a one-off game. The Celtics must move the ball and play with some pace, then see if the Cavaliers can keep it together in the face of crisp play.

When this series heads back to Boston Wednesday, it will either see the Celtics in control up 3-1, or the series will be a best of three (with the Cavs still having to figure out if they can win on the road). At home, the Cavaliers are going to play with force again and have some depth. We’ll see if Game 3 was enough of a wakeup call for Boston.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.