There is one major basketball reason the Pacers struggled to beat the Hawks in the first round. Atlanta's unconventional "five out" lineup discombobulated a Pacers defense that must station their bigs, specifically Roy Hibbert, close to the rim to achieve maximum potency. Paul Millsap, Pero Antic and Mike Scott had to be honored from the three-point line, which opened up driving lanes for Jeff Teague and others. When Indiana didn't honor that threat, they (well, at least Millsap and Scott) rained threes. There's a reason Indiana went just 6-5 in 11 total games against Atlanta this season.
The Wizards do not have that kind of capability with their starting lineup. Nene and Marcin Gortat are proficient mid-range shooters, but they cannot stretch the defense like the Hawks' big men. Indiana usually concedes mid-range jumpers anyway, and even if they didn't, there's significantly less distance to travel to both protect the rim and the perimeter when big men are merely shooting from 17 feet instead of 24.
There is one lineup, though, that can mimic Atlanta's five-out approach: the forgotten AARP Unit of Andre Miller, Bradley Beal, Martell Webster, Al Harrington and Drew Gooden.
During the regular season, this was one of Washington's best units, outscoring opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions in 157 total minutes. Other teams' second units couldn't cover all those perimeter threats, and few had the kind of offensive threats necessary to take advantage of Harrington and Gooden inside.
One team that did, though, was the Wizards' first-round opponent: the Chicago Bulls. You recall how ace Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson manhandled the Wizards all series? Imagine him doing the same to Harrington and Gooden. That's why the AARP Unit played zero minutes in the first round.
This is a different round, though. Indiana doesn't have a Taj Gibson on their roster, so there's less risk of a defensive mismatch. And as we saw in the Wizards' one win over Indiana this season on March 28, the Pacers have issues covering all of that shooting. The AARP Unit was a +10 in one six-minute second quarter stretch, pushing the Wizards' lead to double digits.
Harrington in particular feasted, running circles around Luis Scola and David West for 12 points in 20 minutes. For example:
And Harrington's shooting opened up a lot of other opportunities too. The Pacers often trap the pick and roll when Scola or West is involved, but that's tougher to do when you also have to account for Harrington's range. Al missed this three, but it's a wide open shot that resulted from one such trap.
The Wizards' ability to space the floor with this lineup will also make things easier for Beal and Miller. This post-up didn't work, but you'll usually take Miller's ability to go to work with this much of an opening.
This is what the AARP unit provides. Hell, if you want to really take advantage of it, replace Miller with John Wall. Wall attacking with that kind of spacing is a major problem Indiana's D.
Obviously, I'm not saying start the AARP Unit or anything. The Pacers will surely change their rotation to protect their weak second unit as much as possible. But this is the perfect series to bring it back for short stretches to begin the second and fourth quarters, even if it means fewer minutes for Nene and Trevor Booker.
A couple other notes after rewatching the final two Pacers-Wizards games (I didn't rewatch the November 29 one).
- Don't let Lance get loose: Lance Stephenson had a huge performance in the game in January, running up the Wizards' throats and wrecking havoc on both ends. The Wizards must take away his easy buckets in transition. If they do, the Pacers' offense has few places to turn given Trevor Ariza's work limiting Paul George.
- Wall needs to step up: One may think that this is a major advantage for Wall, but he needs to improve on his regular-season performance to make it so. As NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted, he shot just 5-19 when George Hill guarded him in the three games. Wall also took just 2.6 free throws a game in the three games. Those numbers must rise if the Wizards are to win this series.
- Dealing with Hibbert: As noted the other day, the Wizards' offense died with Roy Hibbert on the floor this year. He's ultimately the key to the series. If he comes close to replicating January Hibbert, the Wizards are in big trouble. There were tons of times where the Wizards drove right at him, but couldn't finish. (That's even the case in the March win). My recommendation: involve West in pick and rolls and slide Hibbert around with misdirection so he needs to come over to contest shots at the rim. Don't just let him stand there.
- A good gameplan: Everything I wrote in January on how to beat Indiana's D applies.