8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Wizards -3.5, Over/Under: 237.5
With two teams advancing into the Playoffs there are two more spots left, with the (9 Seed) Indiana Pacers and (8 Seed) Washington Wizards set to decide who will face the (1 Seed) Philadelphia 76ers in the First Round, as they meet for the fourth and final time this season, with Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. serving as the venue. Looking to book a trip to the postseason for a sixth consecutive year, it certainly hasn’t been a smooth path for the Pacers (34-38, 9th in Eastern Conference) in 2020-2021. Not long after handing (former Head Coach) Nate McMillan a contract extension, management surprisingly relieved him of his duties following a disappointing sweep in the First Round, their fifth such exit in as many years. (General Manager) Kevin Pritchard appointed Nate Bjorkgren as his successor, and needless to say, the transition to a more up-tempo approach under the young tactician has not gone as planned. From the jump, 45-year old struggled to hit it off with his players, with some in particular demanding change; (veteran Swingman) T.J. Warren (15.5 PTS, 52.9% FG, 3.5 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.5 STL, 11.6 PER) asked to be traded not long after meeting his new boss, while others have voiced their opinion against Bjorkgren’s man management skills (or lack thereof). As if that wasn’t a big enough hurdle to get over, Indiana also suffered a wealth of injuries throughout the campaign, with the aforementioned Warren missing all but the first four games of the season with a broken foot, while (defensive stalwart) Myles Turner (12.6 PTS, 47.7% FG, 33.5% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 3.4 BLK, 15.3 PER), fresh off of leading the league in blocks for the second time in three years, was lost to a torn ligament in his toe, missing the twenty-two of the final twenty-three contests and will not be returning anytime soon. Compounding matters was the team’s involvement in the massive four-team blockbuster that sent (2017-2018 MVP) James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets; Indiana shipped away (All-Star Guard) Victor Oladipo in the deal, whom they had no intention of resigning to a lucrative extension, and acquired the services of (young Shooting Guard) Caris LeVert (20.7 PTS, 44.3% FG, 31.8% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 4.9 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.7 BLK, 17.4 PER). Unfortunately, the ensuing physical would reveal a cancerous tumor on the 26-year old’s kidney, with the following surgical procedure and rehab costing him the first twenty-four games of his tenure with his new club. LeVert would return to participate in thirty-five of the next thirty-six games, but would inexplicably find himself in the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols for the foreseeable future, testing positive for COVID-19. With all that in mind, it would have been easy for this group to have thrown in the proverbial towel, with the franchise showing signs that they were willing to admit their mistake, sack Bjorkgren and start fresh heading into 2021-2022. Instead, they pushed for the postseason, earning a spot in the Play-In Tournament against the youthful Charlotte Hornets, whom the absolutely OBLITERATED in a 144-117 thumping in Indiana on Tuesday Night. This one was all about one team possessing Playoff experience against another who had none, with the Pacers embarrassing their opponent from the jump even without the services of Warren, Turner, or LeVert; Indiana totaled forty points in the First Quarter alone, en route to shooting a scorching 55.2% from the field, including 16-of-35 from beyond the arc (45.7%), assisting on thirty-five of their fifty-eight field goals, eight different players scored in double-figures, led by (All-Star Center) Domantas Sabonis (20.3 PTS, 53.5% FG, 32.1% 3FG, 12.0 REB, 6.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, 20.6 PER) who nearly amassed a Triple-Double with fourteen points, twenty-one rebounds, and nine assists. The unheralded tandem of Oshea Brissett (10.9 PTS, 48.3% FG, 42.3% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.0 BLK, 17.2 PER) and Doug McDermott (13.6 PTS, 53.2% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 15.6 PER) finished with twenty-three and twenty-one respectively, while they all benefitted from the healthy return of (veteran Swingman) Malcolm Brogdon (21.2 PTS, 45.3% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 5.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 17.9 PER), who dished out eight assists to accompany his sixteen points. They’ll be looking to continue that torrid offensive approach against the Wizards, whom bested them in each of their previous three meetings this season, which were certainly high-scoring affairs with both sides averaging north of 130.0 points per game. Needless to say, the Pacers must figure out a way to slow down their opponent if they have any hopes of returning to the postseason, for Washington posted a robust 139.7 points on 53.6% shooting from the field, including 38.2% from downtown, while dishing out 35.3 assists and outrebounding them by a commanding margin of 9.3.
Meanwhile, the Wizards (34-38, 8th in Eastern Conference) will have one last opportunity to get into the Playoffs for the first time in three years, as they hope that facing off against a familiar opponent will facilitate their return. After an unfortunately dreadful start marred by injuries and COVID-19, the Washington has been in desperation mode for months now, approaching the second half of the campaign as if there was no tomorrow, which is precisely the case as they positioned themselves in this Play-In. The team got off to a miserable 6-17 start in 2020-2021 with the team unable to practice/play for the better part of two weeks in Mid-January, while (2016-2017 MVP) Russell Westbrook (22.2 PTS, 43.9% FG, 31.5% 3FG, 11.5 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 19.5 PER) missing seven games to injury and promising young center, Thomas Bryant (14.3 PTS, 64.8% FG, 42.9% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 BLK, 18.7 PER) losing the season to a torn ACL in his left knee after just ten games. Of course, Westbrook arrived in the (condensed) offseason via a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets in exchange for the oft-injured John Wall, reuniting the nine-time All-Star with former Head Coach, Scott Brooks, whom he spent the first seven years of his career with in Oklahoma City. However, though things certainly started slowly for the pair this season, something has absolutely clicked in the second half of the for Westbrook has been the posterchild for this team’s success of late, averaging 23.0 points on 45.4% shooting, with 13.5 rebounds and 14.0 assists over the last twenty-three games, a period in which the Wizards rallied to a 17-6 mark with the veteran Point Guard logging half of his thirty-six Triple-Doubles this season, a year in which he also passed (Hall of Famer) Oscar Robertson on the all-time list (184). Leading the NBA in assists for the third time in the last four years, Westbrook has developed excellent chemistry with fellow Guard, Bradley Beal (31.3 PTS, 48.5% FG, 34.9% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 22.7 PER), who very nearly finished the campaign as the league’s leading scorer, averaging a career-high 31.3 points. The 27-year old entered the league as simply a jump-shooter, but has since expanded his skillset to the point where he can just as easily get to the rim on drives and cutting off the ball, while his shooting range has only expanded. With that said, Beal has been playing through a tender left hamstring for the past week, though still managed to finish with a game-high twenty-five points (albeit on 8-of-27 shooting) in Washington’s 115-110 victory over the Charlotte Hornets in the Season Finale over the weekend. Unfortunately, neither star could make much of an impression in Tuesday Night’s Play-In, a disappointing 118-100 defeat at the Boston Celtics. The visitors fought hard in the First Half, even clinging to a 54-52 advantage at Halftime, but it was a disaster in in the second Half where the hosts outscored them 66-46. Though Brooks’ troops certainly struggled on the defensive end, particularly against Jayson Tatum who lit them up for FIFTY points (twenty-three of which came in the Third Quarter), they didn’t offer much offensively either, which was really disappointing given how they’ve performed over the previous two months. Washington shot just 43.5% from the field, including a dreadful 3-of-21 from beyond the arc (14.3%), with nearly as many turnovers (15) as assists (17). Westbrook and Beal combined for for forty-two points on a disappointing 16-of-43 shooting (37.2%), including 1-of-10 from downtown (10.0%), while accounting for seven of their sides fifteen turnovers. They also couldn’t keep the Celtics off the charity stripe, with the home side calmly knocking down 27-of-32 free-throws which was in stark contrast to the 17-of-20 for the visiting side. Combining three-pointers and free-throws, Boston outscored Washington by a staggering FORTY-SIX points, placing them squarely in tonight’s do-or-die matchup with the Pacers. However, as we touched upon earlier, the Wizards have absolutely OWNED this particular opponent this season, averaging a prolific 139.7 points against them, including a season-high 154 in their second meeting back on May 3rd. Westbrook has been particularly impressive against Indiana, averaging (you guessed it) a Triple-Double with 27.3 points, 18.0 rebounds, and 20.0 assists, while shooting an efficient 50.0% from the field, including a surprising 7-of-13 from three (53.8%).