INDIANAPOLIS — After each of the Washington Wizards‘ road losses to the Indiana Pacers during the regular season, players retreated to their locker room and immediately grew frustrated over what they believed was a missed opportunity.
“We said that we can definitely beat this team,” said center Marcin Gortat. “We just have to play a little bit better.”
Back then, the Pacers were the Indiana Pacers. They improved to 15-1 after their first victory over Washington on Nov. 29, and a victory on Jan. 10 pushed their record to 29-7. They were, at that point, the juggernaut of the Eastern Conference — a team personified by its unity and its mentality.
By the time the Wizards did claim that win on March 28 at Verizon Center, the Pacers were beyond fractured. They went just 17-16 over the final two months of the season and kept their hold on the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference only because the Miami Heat faltered in the final week. The Atlanta Hawks, the only team to qualify for the playoffs with a losing record, pushed Indiana to seven games in the teams’ first-round series.
They also did so knowing that if they hope to take the next step in the playoffs, they’ll have to win at least one road game against the Pacers — something they haven’t done in over seven years.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve won anywhere,” said coach Randy Wittman. “Those streaks — all these guys weren’t here when half that streak was, so that doesn’t play in. It’s a matter of us. We’ve won on the road, and that arena is no different than the other arenas we’ve played in on the road, so it’s going to be tough, but we’ve got to understand that and take it one game at a time. It takes four to move on, and that’s what we’re thinking.”
The Wizards entered the playoffs tied for the best road record among all Eastern Conference teams; in fact, their 22-19 mark was identical to their home record, which, conversely, was the worst in the group.
After winning their lone regular-season road game in Chicago, they surprisingly took the first two games of the Bulls series at United Center, then advanced to the second round with a Game 5 victory there.
That success away from home is vastly different from what the Wizards have experienced in recent years. They won just seven road games last season and went a combined 19-71 since 2010-11 — John Wall’s first season in Washington.
“I think it’s just playing basketball,” Wall said. “For some reason, away from our home arena, we play as more of a team. We move the ball. We put defensive pressure on guys, and we do a great job getting out into the open court — not just to get fast-break points, but to put pace into the game and playing the way we want to play.”
Washington has lost every game it has played against the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 12 in all, dating back to the final game of the 2006-07 season. That’s not even its longest streak against one opponent: The Wizards have not defeated the Memphis Grizzlies on the road since 2004, and they’ve lost every road game against the San Antonio Spurs since Dec. 11, 1999.
In the pair of road losses to the Pacers — a 93-73 defeat on Nov. 29, then a 94-66 loss on Jan. 10 — the Wizards shot a collective 35.7 percent from the floor, were heavily outrebounded and were outscored in the paint. Their 91-78 victory at Verizon Center on March 28 wasn’t much better, for they again struggled inside and made just 39.1 percent of their shots.
“I think we missed a lot of easy shots,” said guard Bradley Beal, whose 12 points per game in two games against the Pacers this season is well below his 17.1-point average. “I think we missed a lot of layups. Myself and John, I think we missed a lot of pull-ups, and [Trevor Ariza] as well. It was just a bunch of shots that we were open on. We just didn’t make them, and I think that will definitely change this series.”
“I don’t care about the past,” he said. “I care about the present and what we’re going to do [in the series]. The focus is on what we have to do to win the game. That’s what I care.”