The first-seeded Indiana Pacers barely squeaked by the Atlanta Hawks, and will look to take on the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards in one half of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Through the first half of the season, the Indiana Pacers looked like a legitimate title contender as they compiled the league's best record through 41 games played. However, the Pacers inexplicably stumbled down the stretch, finishing with a record of 12-13 from March onward. Their pitiful playoff performance against the Atlanta Hawks provided Pacers fans with little confidence, as they needed seven games to dispatch of the Hawks, who finished the regular season with a losing record in the Eastern Conference.
The Wizards, on the other hand, defeated the favored Chicago Bulls in the first round by a series score of 4-1. Although they racked up 12 fewer wins than the Pacers in the regular season, the two Eastern Conference foes look to be relative equals at the moment.
Their fortunes will likely be decided by the following three factors:
Hibbert struggled against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. He posted 5.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, numbers unthinkable for a gargantuan 7-foot-2 center. Despite his struggles, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel elected to keep Hibbert in the lineup, and was rewarded in Game 7, as Hibbert scored 13 points and blocked five shots.
Much of his problems were a product of mismatches. Hibbert spent the majority of his time guarding three-point shooting bigs in Pero Antic and Paul Millsap, which forced him out of his comfort zone defensively.
Hibbert's strength is his ability to alter shots at the rim. Although the sample size is minuscule, over the Wizards and Pacers' final two regular season meetings, Hibbert contested a total of 11 shots at the rim and only conceded four field goals. When he's right, Hibbert is a massive plug that clogs the paint, which will be key against the Wizards' formidable front-line.
Lining up opposite of Hibbert will be the Wizards' Nene. Standing at massive 6-foot-11, 250 lbs, Nene isn't conceding much to Hibbert by way of size.
Nene's performance was key to the Wizards' first round victory against the Bulls. Despite being checked by Bulls center Joakim Noah - who won defensive player of the year honors in a landslide - Nene was able to dominate, posting averages of 17.8 points and 6.5 rebounds on 55 percent shooting from the field in four games played.
Pacers swingman Paul George is the linchpin of Indiana's vaunted defense. George's length, quickness, awareness and strength allows him to effectively guard multiple positions.
George spent the majority of his time in the last series guarding his positional counterpart in DeMarre Carrol, but also took regular shifts checking power forward Paul Millsap and point guard Jeff Teague.
His match-up against Teague should in theory give him a taste of the John Wall experience. Like Teague, Wall is also a lightning quick point guard with explosive athleticism. The Pacers will likely start with point guard George Hill defending Wall, but in all likelihood, George will be called upon to stop Wall during critical possessions.
Wall overwhelmed the Bulls in the first round, scoring 19 points per game while dishing out 6.8 assists per game. Although he struggled with finding his shot, Wall's ability to get past the first line of defense caused the Bulls' defense to contort, which opened up looks for his teammates.
During their three regular season matchups, Wall averaged just 13.7 points and 6.7 assists per game against the Pacers. He will have to improve upon those numbers in order to defeat the Pacers, but that will be no easy task against George.
Both teams feature somewhat unreliable wings on the perimeter. For the Pacers, Lance Stephenson is the ultimate wild card, as the fourth-year guard is considered to be highly versatile with questionable instincts. He stands opposite of the Wizards' Bradley Beal, who rarely makes mistakes despite being a sophomore, but his shot is inconsistent.
It's somewhat difficult to predict Stephenson's performance in the upcoming series. The ball-dominant wing has an exceptional handle, and the unique ability to break down defenders with his dribble, but he is often prone to silly mistakes.
Similarly, Beal's performance is also hard to predict because his shot often comes and goes. Beal has an beautiful three-point stroke, and is liable to catch fire at a moment's notice, but he also suffers from cold stretches, which ultimately cramps the Wizards' offensive flow. Against the Bulls, Beal was a consistent threat, averaging 19.8 points per game on 44% shooting from the field.
|1||Mon., May 5||WAS at IND||7:00 p.m. (TNT)|
|2||Wed., May 7||WAS at IND||7:00 p.m. (TNT)|
|3||Fri., May 9||IND at WAS||8:00 p.m. (ESPN)|
|4||Sun., May 11||IND at WAS||8:00 p.m. (TNT)|
|5*||Tue., May 13||WAS at IND||TBD (TNT)|
|6*||Thu., May 15||IND at WAS||TBD (ESPN)|
|7*||Sun., May 18||WAS at IND||TBD (TNT)|