8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Indiana -7.0
On the eve of the final day of the Regular Season, plenty is left to be decided as teams continue to jockey for postseason positioning, which is precisely the case at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse as the surging Indiana Pacers host the Washington Wizards. After an offseason ravaged by defections and injuries, and a dreadful stretch in which they lost nine of eleven, many left the Pacers (37-43, 4th in Central) for dead. However, unlike last season, they are marching towards the Playoffs with a full of head of steam, winning five consecutive games. Frank Vogel’s charges have proven to be a resilient lot, catching fire on the offensive end during that span; Indiana has averaged 106.0 points while netting a blistering 43.9% of their attempts from beyond the arc over the past five outings, of which they’ve won by an average margin of 12.8 points. In Sunday’s 116-104 victory over the desperate Oklahoma City Thunder, it was like throwing a ball in the ocean, as the hosts made good on a stellar 53.2% of their attempts from the field,min luring 10-of-20 from downtown (50.0%). Trailing by three after the first quarter, Vogel’s men outscored the visitors 87-72 the rest of the way, with four out of five starters finishing in double-figures, led by CJ Miles, whose thirty points equaled a season-high. Ball distribution was key, as the Pacers amassed twenty-five assists with as many as nine different players getting into the act.
However, despite the five-game winning streak, Indiana still doesn’t have the luxury of controlling their own destiny. Indeed, it’s a sticky situation for Vogel and Co. who trail the Boston Celtics by one game for the Seventh Playoff Seed in the Eastern Conference, but due to the tiebreaker residing in the northeast, they have been relegated to fighting tooth and nail with the Brooklyn Nets for the Eighth and final Seed. With that said, the Pacers don’t own the tiebreaker with them either, leaving their only real option winning out and hoping that the Nets stumble down the stretch. So to keep the ball rolling, Indy will have to beat the Wizards, who will likely be resting a number of players given that they’re locked into the Fifth Seed. After losing the first two meetings to the tune of 96-94 (OT) and 97-90 back in early November, the Pacers exacted a measure of vengeance on March 25th, edging Washington 103-101. That night in the Nation’s Capital, the visitors overcame a slow start to outlast the hosts, out scoring them 33-24 in the final stanza. Six different Pacers scored in double-figures that night, led by George Hill who filled up the stat sheet with twenty-nine points on 12-of-24 shooting from the field (50.0%), seven rebounds, nine assists, a steal, and even a block. Of course that victory place before the team received an inspirational boost, as Paul George made his long awaited return after rehabbing from a gruesome broken leg sustained last Summer during a Team USA scrimmage. The All-Star Small Forward has been present for the last four of their current five-game winning streak, with Vogel brining him along slowly; the fifth-year veteran has logged just 14.5 minutes per game thus far, as he continues to work off a considerable, yet expected, amount of rust. George has averaged 10.3 points on just 38.2% shooting from the field, including 43.8% from three, along with 3.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.0 steal per contest.
Meanwhile, it may not feel like it due to their play over the second half of the season, but by virtue of their 108-99 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, the Wizards (46-34, 2nd in Southeast) have now won more than 45 games in a season for the first time since the 1978-1979 campaign. That’s right, folks; despite those Wizards teams that made four consecutive appearances in the Playoffs during the mid-2000s, it’s been well over thirty years since this franchise has won more than forty-five games. Against the top seed in the East, Washington jumped out to an early 38-22 lead at the end of the first quarter, which proved to be enough as the Hawks in turn took to resting a number of their key players. Though they committed nineteen turnovers, the hosts managed to shoot a solid 45.9% from the field, including 9-of-21 from three (42.9%), while dishing out twenty-two assists. All five started scored in double-figures, led by John Wall who posted totals of twenty-four points on 9-of-20 shooting (45.0%), along with four rebounds, nine assists, a pair of steals and a block, but also committed a staggering ten turnovers. Paul Pierce continued to round into postseason shape, scoring all but two of his fourteen points from beyond the arc, draining four of his seven attempts.
In many ways, the Wizards resemble the Pacers from last year, as the latter struggled through the the second half of the season, and carried that inconsistent play into the Playoffs. From January 28th to March 29th, Randy Wittman’s charges went an uninspiring 10-18, getting blown out on many a night. However, after that dreadful two months of basketball, they’ve seemingly righted the ship, earning victory in five of their past six outings, putting them in a virtual deadlock for the Fifth Seed in the Eastern Conference, which was the same position they occupied a year ago. Their ups and downs have been embodied by their young, electrifying backcourt of Bradley Beal and the aforementioned Wall, the latter who has really rounded out his overall game this season. While Beal missed time earlier in the year due to surgery on his foot, Wall led Washington in scoring (17.6), while also establishing career marks in field goal percentage (44.8%), rebounds (4.7), and assists (10.0). He’s enjoyed particular high levels of success against the Pacers this season; in three meetings thus far, the Point Guard has averaged 27.7 points on a blistering 52.7% shorting from the field, including 42.9% from beyond the arc, along with 4.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. In fact, Wall’s scoring averaging against Indiana this season and head and shoulders above any of his numbers against the other twenty-eight teams in the league. His quickness has given Indiana’s guards fits this season, and at times looked like a blur against the Hawks Sunday despite missing the two previous outings as Wittman’s rested him for the Playoffs. Washington has averaged a staggering 28.2 assists over their last six games, and much of that can be attributed to Wall, making tonight’s matchup against the Pacers’ staunch defense one to watch.