INDIANAPOLIS — Trevor Ariza didn't care that the Indiana Pacers didn't start their second-round series against the Washington Wizards in the manner they had hoped. That the Pacers seemingly underestimated Ariza and his teammates' ability on Monday night didn't matter to him at all.
"It's not our problem, really," Ariza said smugly, shrugging his shoulders.
After Indiana chased the Atlanta Hawks around the court during a first-round series that stretched to seven games, a conference semifinal showdown with the Wizards seemed, on paper, to provide the top seed a better matchup.
The Pacers could theoretically focus on their defensive strengths — rebounding and contesting shots — and leave the offense in the hands of point guard George Hill and leading scorer Paul George.
That's not how it went in Game 1, when the Wizards emerged with the 102-96 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Washington finished with the advantage on the boards, outscored the Pacers in the paint and still foiled its opponent on the perimeter, knocking down 10 of 16 3-point attempts — the best percentage allowed by the Pacers in any game this season.
Out of necessity, Atlanta focused on its outside shooting, averaging 32.8 3-point attempts per game. At times, defending the perimeter was a challenge for Indiana, which had to shorten its bench and play smaller.
The traditionally-built Pacers, then, seemed to welcome the respite offered in the second round by another team that was equally balanced. The matchups were one thing; anticipating the effort and intensity Washington brought was another.
"This is a tough challenge," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. "We knew exactly what their offensive attack looks like: It's John Wall coming 100 miles per hour, bigs running with him, and if you over-help from the 3-point line, those guys are running to the 3-point line like [Hawks guard] Kyle Korver. It's one of the most difficult breaks to stop in the game."
Wall's biggest crusade through the playoffs has been to discard a penchant for forcing shots and instead lead his teammates into a favorable tempo, especially early. He did that Monday, when he had six points, five assists, two rebounds and two blocks after a first quarter in which the Wizards took a 13-point lead.
The Pacers hoped that if they could control Wall, the rest of the Wizards' offense would suffer from a lack of direction. They did not, and they also underestimated how effective Washington's outside shooting could be — with good reason.
Washington shot just 36.9 percent from the floor in three regular-season meetings, including 32.7 percent from 3-point range. Ariza, who went 4-for-16 from beyond the arc in the regular-season games, scored 22 points off 7-for-10 shooting — including six3 -pointers, tying a single-game franchise record he previously also held with his performance in Game 4 of the first-round series against the Chicago Bulls.
"[The Pacers] played us this season and they know what we're capable of," Wall said. "They watched the playoffs and saw how good we can be when we play as a group."
The Wizards were also effective inside, especially with starting center Roy Hibbert mired in the worst slump of his career. Marcin Gortat, whose offense slipped near the end of the first round, and Drew Gooden, who barely played in it, each had double-doubles. Nenê, who found a groove with his mid-range jump shot against the Bulls, was more active closer to the rim than in the previous series.
In total, the Wizards outrebounded the Pacers 53-36 — something they were unable to do during the regular season. They turned 17 rebounds on the offensive end into 19 second-chance points, and the Pacers' 20 points in the paint were the fewest they scored in any game this season.
With Hibbert struggling and backup Ian Mahinmi also ineffective, the Pacers turned to a smaller lineup for a stretch in the second half, pairing David West with his backup, Luis Scola. Vogel had to scrap that idea, too, with his team getting dominated inside.
Vogel vowed to get Hibbert, who only took two shots, more involved in the offensive end during Game 2 on Wednesday night. It was the only large-scale change Indiana would discuss before the game; George, who had a team-high 18 points despite making only four of 17 shots in Game 1, said everything else would be "very subtle adjustments."
If that's the case, Ariza may not be feeling any pity for the Pacers afterward, either.
"At this point, I don't think we're catching anybody by surprise," Ariza said. "We played 82 games. We played five playoff games as well, and teams have had a lot of time to scout what we've been doing. They're a good team. They have a good coaching staff over there, so I know they were well-prepared for what we're doing. We just tried to execute our game plans and play hard every night."
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