Like many of you, I've borne the brunt of far too many uncomfortable halftime leads to feel confident about this team closing out its opponent. Washington stormed out to a 17-point lead by the end of a dominating second quarter, but after some more uneven play from their starters, they quickly saw their lead crumble before their eyes. With the exception of Bradley Beal -- who's essentially the head of the second unit -- no starter had a positive plus/minus.
From the onset of the third quarter, the way the starters played foreshadowed the coming collapse. While the offense was fine (for the most part), the defense suffered through major lapses and couldn't produce any stops. Indiana went on a 20-4 run in the final five minutes of the quarter to cut the deficit to one.
Nene may have lost a step or two this season, but this is still right up his alley. He's so good at showing and recovering, which permits the rest of his teammates to stay on their man without having to help out. You can live with either the ball handler or screener making a play out of the pick and roll, but once you involve a third or even fourth offensive player, you run into problems.
But even as a help defender, you don't want to have to stunt or otherwise jump out on the roll man. You're prone to backdoor cuts, and if you lose sight of how far you've strayed away, you can quickly get blindsided by a mean back screen. Conversely, this so happens to be what the Wizards exploit so often on offense, which makes this all the more maddening. Bradley Beal jumps way out on David West, and Lance Stephenson strolls in for the easy two points.
There's no way the starters can justify that third quarter. John Wall's confidence is marred, and he's no longer looking to score. You rarely see him forcing the action outside of pushing the ball off misses, and he's accepted what the defense has taken away. You want him to be a little more fearless off the dribble, even if it means attacking that Indiana front line full-tilt.
One of the most impressive individual performances I saw in the regular season was Goran Dragic's 28-point performance against the Pacers back on January 30. Everything Indiana did was geared toward stopping Dragic on the secondary break, but none of it mattered.
Dragic rejected drag screens, got to the middle of the floor, and once he saw that real estate in front of him with Hibbert backpedaling, he threw in a quick head-fake, stepped through, and finished right over the top. Wall doesn't have every trick in the book like Goran does, and maybe that's something he's just going to have to hold off on until he's had another offseason to work with.
But Wall's just a small piece of the problem here. With even a modicum of sufficient play from the front court, we'd be talking about tying up the series. When you're getting six rebounds out of your starting power forward and center, it's pretty easy to sub them out and play the AARP unit extended minutes.
That's Roy Hibbert waltzing right in front of Marcin Gortat off the missed free throw. There's no attempt to beat him into the lane and box him out, nevermind the fact that he should almost always have inside position for the rebound when the other team is at the free throw line. There appears to be no sense of urgency (I won't get into what appears to be Beal ball-watching and losing Paul George in the corner).
Or here, with Hibbert pinning Gortat on his back. Gortat reacts by attempting to disrupt the entry pass. Unless you front Hibbert and force Indiana to beat you with a pass over the top, there's only one thing you need to do. Push Hibbert off the block, and force him to put the ball on the floor. If you do that, it gives you a leg-up in sending a delayed double-team, and at worst, he beats you with a contested hook shot.
That doesn't happen here. Because Gortat commits himself to the pass, the entire middle of the floor opens up. All Hibbert has to do is turn to the middle.
Gortat isn't in position to contest the shot at all, so he fouls, and Hibbert converts the And-1, cutting the lead to single-digits. The next few possessions? A Wall turnover as he falls to the floor, and Washington losing track of Paul George once again as they get burned for another three in transition.
Then another Wall miss, and Lance Stephenson gets right to cup on the other end with Roy Hibbert tipping in the missed layup. Lead cut to two.
The final three minutes of the ball game is the more pressing concern for obvious reasons. Washington built up a nine point lead in the fourth on the backs of the AARP unit, only to see their defense once again faltering late. But give Indiana credit for finding ways to get their superstar going. Paul George went into super-nova mode, and there just wasn't an answer for him. He stepped into threes off the dribble, came off pindowns, and even broke free out of an elevator doors screen that got him an And-1 on another three-point shot.
I refuse to believe this series is over. Washington can very well win another road game by opening up the floor with their AARP unit, and the need to win at home in this series is reason enough to believe they can send this series to seven games. But Game 4 is the one we'll all look at with disgust. After humiliating themselves in front of their home crowd in Game 3, the starters' effort seemed lacking, just when you were thinking they'd have learned their lesson. Now their season is on the brink, and it's going to take a massive effort for them to avoid getting the Gentleman's Sweep.