The approach taken by the Washington Wizards for the entirety of their postseason run has been one of desperation and urgency. That message, reinforced time and again by coach Randy Wittman, has been to take advantage of every opportunity because the next one may not ever present itself.
An 85-63 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Friday in Game 3 of the teams’ second-round playoff series did away with those pretenses. As the Wizards prepared for Game 4 at Verizon Center on Sunday night, the desperation, for now, was tangible. The urgency, increasingly, was sudden.
“Everybody’s disappointed we lost that game at home, but hey, the series is not over yet,” center Marcin Gortat said Sunday morning. “They still have to win two more games. We have to win three more games. We have a game at home. [If] we’re going to win this game, you could say we’re pretty much in the same spot we started. It’s not that bad, like everybody’s thinking. We’ve just got to win a game today.”
The Wizards didn’t merely lose Game 3 on Friday. They were humiliated, with their 63 points they scored their fewest in franchise history. John Wall had seven turnovers, his most in a month. Gortat, a beast on the blocks in Game 2, was held to just four points. The team missed 10 of 21 free throw attempts.
Collectively, Washington shot 32.9 percent, including 4-for-16 from 3-point range, as Beal, Gortat and Nenê combined to go 11-for-40 from the floor.
“We’ve got a lot of easy shots,” said Beal, who shot 44 percent in the first-round series victory over the Chicago Bulls. “Layups, easy shots in the paint, 18-footers that we usually make — especially myself — so I’ve definitely got to step up as one of the role players on this team and just be able to knock them down like anybody else.”
This type of performance is exactly what the Pacers hoped for prior to the start of the series. One of the better defensive teams during the regular season, Indiana held opponents to a league-best 43 percent shooting, was second with 92.3 points allowed and was third in opponent 3-point shooting, with teams only knocking down 35.5 percent of those shots.
The 102-point effort by Washington in Game 1 was uncharacteristic, then, and the Pacers wanted to prevent that from happening again. They had forward Paul George, their leading scorer and their best perimeter defender, accept the role of guarding Beal. They adjusted to Wall, breaking the point guard’s pace by rotating an extra guard back rather than crashing the offensive boards.
George, who has now qualified for the playoffs in each of his four seasons, said the adjustments required during the postseason will start to come naturally to Wall and Beal as their careers continue.
“I remember my first playoff run my rookie year, and that whole first playoff run taught me everything going into my second year in the stuff that I needed to get better at and improve on,” George said. “For a guy like Bradley, he’s gonna have to learn to play through contact and learn the pace of how to get free and get open and get good looks. The same for John — it’s different for those guys. … He’s gonna know now that it’s another level. He got past the first round, but it’s another level after the first round. It’s another level in the second round. It’s just those guys getting some experience.”
Perhaps Indiana’s greatest adjustment wasn’t as a team, but individually. After being held without a point or a rebound in Game 1, center Roy Hibbert scored 28 points, more than he had in any game this season, in a Game 2 victory, then followed up with a steady 14 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots in Game 3 on Friday.
“We want to try to keep their confidence down,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said Sunday morning. “If we can get a second win on their home court, that would be a difficult blow for them to endure — and it’s something we’re definitely looking to do.”
The Wizards had not previously trailed in the playoffs, defeating the Bulls in five games in the first round, and the Pacers never held a lead in a first-round victory over the Atlanta Hawks until they won Game 7 and advanced.
Trailing, then, is an unfamiliar position for the Wizards — but then again, so is the entire playoff experience. What they don’t want is to truly feel the pressure of returning to Indianapolis for Game 5 on Tuesday facing elimination.
“I think everybody’s attitude is the same, if not higher,” Wall said. “I think we’re probably more motivated and more focused now because we’re down now, so hopefully, we can forget about the last game and it’s a whole new one tonight.”