It’s almost time for the NBA Playoffs to truly begin, with only one matter left to settle: Who is the 8th seed? After two games of varying interest, we’re at the final stage of the tournament. The Indiana Pacers thrashed the Charlotte Hornets to earn a win-and-in chance against the Washington Wizards, who are coming off a beating of their own by the Boston Celtics, behind Jason Tatum’s efficient 50 point game. Have the injury-riddled Pacers done enough to right the ship for a playoff appearance, was the Wizards’ disappointing Tuesday night just a blip or a sign of things to come? Let’s get into it.
In 3 games this season, the Wizards pulled off a sweep of the Pacers starting with 2 comfortable wins, before their most recent game was decided by 1 point in overtime. If that’s indicative of the kind of game we can expect on Thursday night, be ready for some fireworks. I had previously praised both these teams on their returns to fundamental basketball fueling their recent success, but after two opposite performances on Tuesday, the Pacers looked like the better of the two sides. “We couldn’t find it. We couldn’t find the basket,” Washington HC Scott Brooks said, regarding the awful performance put up by his team “We haven’t shot well all year long but we’re not a 3-for-21 shooting team.” Bradley Beal was noticeably slowed by his hamstring injury, but still the best player on his side of the court, as Russell Westbrook was downright awful all game. The Pacers saw solid performances from all 5 starters, as well as great and efficient scoring minutes from both Bitadze and McConnell off the bench.
What do the Wizards need in order to put this away and cement the 8th seed? Frankly, they need the old Bradley Beal back. Beal has been struggling through a hamstring injury, and it clearly slowed him down in Boston, but if he can slow his game down and play more efficiently he can still help them put this series away and move on to the playoffs. More important than that though, they need Westbrook to play decisively. His shooting percentage may be awful, but his rebounds and assists are more important than his scoring in this matchup. Westbrook was sloppy, slow, and unwilling to let go of the ball for the betterment of the team. We can expect better shooting as a unit as Washington gravitates to the norm, but they need to reduce their turnovers and break outside the paint for points; they’ll be hard-pressed to dominate under the basket against Indiana.
For the Pacers, they’ll need to do what Boston did and hold Washington outside the 3-point line. They’re not a dominant team from distance on a good day, and by forcing them to play inside the paint they go up against the Pacers’ strengths. Sabonis is coming off an electric performance where he put up 14 points, 21 rebounds, and 9 assists, and his presence in the key cannot be understated. With Caris LeVert still out on health and safety protocols, and Myles Turner done for the season, using Sabonis wisely is going to be crucial both for this game and potentially beyond. It’s hard to improve on the game they played to get to this point, but if the Pacers let themselves get complacent and forget they’re playing against two All-Star players, they will be home by Friday night.
Frankly, this is far from the best series we’re going to see, but it may be one of the least predictable. The best estimate we can provide here is that both teams will return to Earth by a considerable margin; The Wizards start the steep climb to mediocrity again and the Pacers remember they’re a 9th seed. Wizards over Pacers, though we don’t fancy either team’s chances against the 76ers.