The second round's here! After dispatching the league's 2nd-best defense in five games in the first round, America's new basketball darlings will battle the league's best-best defense.
A lot of the pressure to get the Wizards going will, unsurprisingly, be on John Wall's shoulders. While the Bulls tried to limit his influence in the first round, this season showed that Indiana and, in particular, George Hill were able to limit his impact on the game.
Against Chicago in the first round, Wall averaged 9.2 free throw attempts per game, connecting on 7.0 of them (per basketball-reference.com). During the regular season, his numbers were 3.9 out of 4.8 attempts. Indiana, however, held Wall to less than half of those attempts -- 2.3, to be exact -- his fewest attempts against any East opponent. When Hill was guarding Wall, he only made about a quarter of his shots -- 5 of 19 -- and he missed all four of this three-point attempts. Scary stuff.
But Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight.com, believes that the Wizards might be able to take advantage of the Pacers' weakened state and continue to play at a high level. He argues that the series is essentially a toss-up based on fatigue:
Original SRS odds: Indiana 76 percent to win the series.
Modified SRS odds: Indiana 54 percent to win the series.
The formula has the Pacers going from being 3-to-1 favorites to beat Washington to about even money. This is obviously something of an extreme case of a No. 1 seed struggling and facing a No. 5 seed that played very, very well and is much better rested. I might be biased since I've been called a wizard, but I can buy that the series is about even given how much Indiana struggled late in the regular season.
The good news for the Pacers is that if these results are mostly about fatigue, they could reset the table by beating the Wizards relatively easily. The bad news is that they aren't likely to do so: The formula gives Indiana only a 21 percent chance of beating Washington in four or five games. By contrast, it gives Miami a 33 percent chance of sweeping Brooklyn, and a 70 percent chance of winning in four or five. So the Pacers' plodding performance is likely to catch up with them sooner or later, even if they get by Washington.
But it would be unwise for the Wizards to assume Atlanta did all the hard prep work for them (but seriously, thanks Hawks!). Washington will need to make sure its strong defense and clicking offense carry into round two.
The Wizards started their games hot in the first round (the were the "best first-quarter team," outscoring Chicago by 28.0 points per 100 possessions), but we saw time and again during the season and even against Chicago that holding onto leads late is something the Wizards can do, but haven't mastered it yet. When the Washington faces Indiana, the best "fourth-quarter team of the first round" (Indiana outscored Atlanta by 24.0 points per 100 possessions), the Wizards will have to make sure they can take care of the ball late and get stops in crunch time.
With a 2-1 season series in their favor, a 12-win superior record, and two years of hard-fought series against the eventual NBA Champions, it would seem to support Indiana taking this series handily. But even though the Pacers are the top seed in the East, their struggles over the last few months -- including in the first round against the Hawks -- shows their path out of the East won't be easy. And a solid Washington defense and a clicking offense led by John Wall could be the reasons why.