Prior to the first round, there was exactly one thing standing in the way of the Wizards and the second round of the playoffs: the health of Nene. He was the key to it all and the perfect neutralizer to Joakim Noah, who personified the entirety of Chicago's offense. His acuity in making the right rotations took away cuts to the basket, as well as his ability to pressure ball handlers away from the basket, provided a service no other Washington big man was capable of bringing. Bottling up Noah was priority number one, and with that, Chicago's late-game offense became listless.
And now, it's Trevor Ariza's turn.
He has the task of defending Paul George, and it couldn't be at a more inopportune time. George has unearthed his midrange prowess from the first two months of the season, and despite a near first-round collapse by the Pacers, he has manifested himself into one of the top scorers in the league. He averaged nearly 24 points per game on terrific shooting efficiency against the Hawks and he's killing defenses in a variety of ways.
Indiana has unmasked George as a pick and roll threat this season. It's helped that he left the offseason with a refined floor game, but the responsibility was coming whether he was ready or not. They simply don't have the means to get it out of anyone else not named Lance Stephenson and they weren't going to just let all that talent go to waste. Over 20 percent of plays ending in a shot attempt, turnover, or foul came as a pick and roll ball handler, per Synergy Sports Technology. That figure has ramped up even higher in the playoffs.
This is where he's become so dangerous. The first thing he's looking for is a clean look from midrange, because, well, that's what he does best. Teams simply can't station their bigs in the lane as to invite him into those jumpers. But when they jump out on him, he's developing an ultra-quick change-of-pace dribble, and augments it with his elite athleticism.
But this is also where the Wizards are so good. They're not like most teams that have one single philosophy for defending the ball screen. Most of the time, they do hang their big men back into the lane, fearing they lack the foot speed to keep up with ball handlers. But they will sporadically send their big men out to contain ball handlers, and that's largely due to their speed on the wings to cover up any openings.
You saw this in the regular-season matchups. Here, George has the ball up top, but this time, sees Marcin Gortat immediately as he comes off the pick. This is what Randy Wittman will want to do with him in this upcoming series because it forces him to ad-lib and make plays he's not totally comfortable making. He's a killer when he see's soft coverages because it gives him enough room to either take the jumper or penetrate, which prompts a help defender to jump out a pass away to get him those easy assists.
But what happens when the defense rotates over to take away his safety valve? Not only is his roll man occupied by the second big man (in this case, Chris Singleton), but John Wall will stunt to his secondary outlet, abandoning C.J. Watson in the far corner.
The rest is academic. Ariza takes away the middle and forces George to dribble right into Gortat. He's not cultivated enough as a passer to make Wall pay for freelancing, and so he takes a heavily contested jumper over two defenders.
Make no mistake about it -- it's Ariza's ball pressure that pushes George way out past the three point line, forcing him to reset. He's relentless, and it's that kind of ball pressure that gets a guy like George out of rhythm. George will constantly have Ariza shadowing his every move, just as D.J. Augustin did, and that will be trouble for an offense that ranked just ahead of the lowly Sixers for the worst offensive rating following the All Star break.
George will get his in this series because he is very good. But disrupting the Pacers' sets and getting in their passing lanes as George comes flying off screens will cause them to work through their secondary and tertiary options. And that's where the trouble is. Indiana isn't a poor passing team per the usual metrics -- their assist numbers are very good -- but they lack consistent creators off the dribble. Roy Hibbert hasn't been the same in quite some time, George Hill is only a nominal point guard that isn't quick enough to strike fear in an opposing defenses, and you never know what you're getting out of Stephenson.
Ariza can sway a handful of possessions each game by simply denying George the ball or forcing him to give it up. He did it on a much smaller scale against Augustin in round 1. Let's see if he can step it up another level to prove why he's one of the best wing defenders in the league.