There’s only one game left in the 2020-21 NBA campaign that needs to be played before the Eastern Conference playoff teams are set. It will take place on Thursday, when the Washington Wizards host the Indiana Pacers with the eighth seed on the line. The winner will reach the postseason and play a series against the Philadelphia 76ers. The loser will head to the draft lottery, their season will be over. It’s the highest possible stakes for a non-playoff battle.
The Pacers won their first play-in match against the Charlotte Hornets to reach this point. They looked tremendous in doing so, scoring 144 points in route to a 27-point victory. Basically ever healthy member of the Indiana roster performed well.
“I liked the energy that we had, especially on the defensive end,” Indiana Pacers Head Coach Nate Bjorkgren said of the Pacers exemplary victory. “Overall, the way that the guys competed, and the movement, the way they shared it on the offensive end, it was good to be a part of.”
After a disappointing regular season, Indiana showed up when it mattered. And they are hoping to carry that momentum into the final play-in game. They lost all three meetings they had with Washington this year, so any extra boosts the Pacers can bring from Tuesday will be much-needed.
“We’ve just got to come with the same intensity. I feel like we did a great job of setting the tone early and hitting them first, not really letting up,” Pacers forward Oshae Brissett detailed about what his team needs to maintain from the first play-in game to the second. “We did that throughout the whole game, but really that first couple five minutes, 10 minutes, we really went at them and we didn’t hold back. We’ve got to do the same thing come Thursday.”
If the Pacers don’t come out with that intensity, they might be doomed. They have had no answers for the Wizards this season, especially star point guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook averaged 27.3 points, 18 rebounds, and 20 assists per game against Indiana this season. No typos. Those were his real stats across three games. The Pacers couldn’t handle his speed, power, and playmaking ability, and Westbrook punished them each outing.
“We just had to be more in our gaps. Help everybody out who was guarding him on an island,” Pacers center Domantas Sabonis said of defending Westbrook. “He did a great job of knocking down shots in key moments and looking for other players.”
The Pacers need to force Westbrook to make tough decisions and take longer shots. He coughed up the most turnovers in the NBA this season at just shy of five per game and, despite canning 7/13 threes against Indiana during the regular season, was only a 31.5% three-point shooter. The Pacers struggled to keep Westbrook out of the paint this season and instead chased him over screens and tried to slow him down with good defensive rotations. That didn’t work, the blue and gold will have to change up their coverages to slow down the former MVP.
Westbrook isn’t alone in leading Washington, though. In fact, he isn’t even the best player on his own team. Bradley Beal, an All-Star this season who averaged over 30 points per game, has been the Wizards most dominant player over the course of the whole campaign. In two games against the Pacers, Beal scored a whopping 76 points and looked flat-out unstoppable. Slowing down Westbrook isn’t the only daunting task the Pacers will have in this game.
Beal can score in numerous ways, which is what makes him so hard to guard. He finished 15th in the league this season in points per game on pull-up shots and third in the NBA in points per game from drives. There isn’t an easy way to contain Beal — if you overplay him to prevent jumpers he can attacking the basket and score. If he is given space or unique coverages to prevent drives, he can pull-up and bury jumpers. His offense is electric, there’s a reason he finished second in the NBA in scoring and dropped 50 points on the Pacers earlier in May.
Between Westbrook and Beal, the Wizards will always have someone on the court who can control the game. When one or both of those two guards were on the floor against the Pacers this season, DC’s team outscored Indiana by 23 points. The duo is extremely dynamic, and the Pacers will be hard-pressed to contain both of them without leaving someone else open.
“When you’ve got two All-Stars like Westbrook and Bradley Beal, it’s hard to contain them” Pacers wing Kelan Martin said earlier in May. “They know how to get to their spots.”
Leaving someone else open hasn’t always worked for the Pacers, though. Wizards Head Coach Scott Brooks discussed how effective three-guard lineups were against the blue and gold earlier this season, and the attention Beal and Westbrook grab is a big reason why — the third guard (typically one of Raul Neto, Ish Smith, or Garrison Mathews) has tons of space to either shoot or attack against a fractured defense. An equally important part of slowing down Washington’s offense will be rotating out to these other ball handlers and making sure they don’t have easy looks at the basket.
The Wizards, meanwhile, will have their own troubles defensively dealing with Indiana. While Washington did win all three regular season meetings between the two squads, they did concede over 120 points in each of the trio of games. Their defense needs work.
The biggest difficulty the Wizards had against the Pacers was containing Domantas Sabonis. The Lithuanian big man averaged 32.3 points, 14.3 rebounds, and 9.3 assists against Washington this season — everything the Pacers did against the Wizards ran through him.
The Wizards don’t have good interior defense. All of the team’s centers — Daniel Gafford, Alex Len, and Robin Lopez — are either too slow or too foul prone to contain Sabonis alone. They need help, but once Washington sends extra defenders towards the Pacers’ All-Star big man, he creates looks for his teammates with accurate passes or solid screens. Sabonis will be key for the Pacers offense in this do-or-die game.
“We’re going to have to be physical with him. He’s a very physical player, an offensive rebounder. He goes over that right shoulder and he’s pretty crafty around the rim,” Brooks said of Sabonis earlier this season. “We’ve got to keep him off the glass, he’s a really good player.”
Unfortunately, Sabonis has struggled defensively against the Wizards this season — he can’t keep up with Washington’s speed. He has to be nearly flawless on offense to help his team keep up. Recently, including the Pacers first play-in game, the two-time All-Star has played at that high level. He will have to do it again versus Washington, on both ends.
Sabonis will need to move the ball from side-to-side to get the Wizards defense moving. Washington finished 20th in defensive rating this season and can be inconsistent on that end of the floor. Indiana, and Sabonis, need to keep the ball whizzing around and keep the Wizards’ defense on its toes.
“The important thing is when we do get into the halfcourt (offense), we change the sides of the court with that basketball,” Bjorkgren mentioned as a key to this game.
Moving the ball well isn’t limited to Sabonis. It will be key for point guard Malcolm Brogdon as well, if he’s able to play. He’s dealing with a hamstring issue, though he was able to play in the Pacers’ first play-in game against the Hornets.
Brogdon is unique for this Pacers team in that he plays with patience while still operating at his team’s rapid pace. That makes him an effective creator of opportunities in most situations, and in a game that will be played at warp speed (both teams finished top-five in pace) his ability to reel in his team will be beneficial. He needs to keep the ball moving similar to the way he did against Charlotte, when he had eight assists in just 21 minutes.
“I just like the way that the guys continue to share the basketball,” Bjorkgren said after that game. He is hoping that it carries over to the Indiana-Washington battle. “I like our cutting, our spacing, our screening, and guys are looking for each other to make the extra pass.”
Perhaps the more important task for Brogdon will come on the defensive end. If he plays, he will almost certainly be tasked with containing one of Beal or Westbrook, a tall order. The Pacers haven’t been able to stop the Wizards on drives or in transition this season, and poor guard defense has been a factor in both of those struggles.
The Wizards finished second in the NBA in transition frequency and 14th in drives. They love those situations, and they had nearly six drives more per game against the Pacers than their season average. Brogdon’s most important responsibility in this game will be limiting drives and running with Washington in transition. His ability to control the Pacers offense is still incredibly important, but the fast breaks and the rim attacks from Washington have given the Pacers fits all season.
While Brogdon’s defense is important since he will be guarding a star, slowing down Washington’s speed is a team effort. Justin Holiday, one of the Pacers’ best team defenders, detailed the challenges of making things harder for the Wizards.
“Trying to load and show guys in the gap. It’s tough when they have shooters,” Holiday explained of stopping drives. “But we have to first initially show ourselves in helpside… and the guy on the ball has to do the best job they can keeping the ball in front of them.”
Ancillary players will be key for both teams as well. The stars drive the game plans and the majority of the strategies, but role players can have a huge impact on winning if they perform well or fill an important role.
Washington forward Dāvis Bertāns is one such player, and he had a monster shooting night against the Pacers earlier this season — he is capable of changing games with his outside shot. Like Justin Holiday said, his presence makes defending the Wizards drives more challenging, and slowing down both options is nearly impossible.
On the Pacers side, Doug McDermott and Oshae Brissett will be important players in this mold. McDermott hit four threes in the first quarter during Indiana’s trounce of Charlotte — his hot shooting to kick off the game set the tone for the blue and gold. A similar performance against the Wizards would be massive for the Pacers.
“A night like this really helps our confidence going forward,” McDermott said Tuesday.
Brissett led the blue and gold in scoring in their first play-in game, but his defense will be more important than his offense in the battle for the eighth seed. He can switch on defense in pick-and-roll scenarios and hold his own against bigger players down low — he has a ton of utility on defense. The Pacers may be well served putting him on one of the Wizards’ star guards for stretches of the game in order to slow down their breakneck-speed attacks.
“The speed at which they play, the pace at which they play.” Bjorkgren said when mentioning the challenges of beating the Wizards.
“Your transition defense has to be elite,” he added.
Homecourt advantage was beneficial for Indiana on Tuesday, the crowd in Bankers Life Fieldhouse was loud and had an impact on the game. That luxury is gone for them, it will be an advantage for the Wizards in this one.
But the Pacers will be prepared, and the two games they played against the Wizards earlier this month will help them refine their game plan. Plus, the win-or-go-home style of these duels means that the Pacers will come out focused and ready to fight. It certainly gave them a boost against the Hornets.
“Definitely energized us. I think any team playing in this format at this stage in the season is playing as hard as they can,” Brogdon said after the Pacers win on Tuesday.
Energy and a solid game plan can get a team far, especially in a best-of-one setting. But the execution of said plan is key. The Pacers lost all three of their games against the Wizards this season because they weren’t able to execute on defense — a repeat of that phenomenon will end Indiana’s season. They will need to play a nearly flawless game to advance to the postseason.
“We want nothing but perfection in these games,” Brissett said.
If the Indiana Pacers operate with perfection in this play-in game, then they will reach the playoffs and get a chance to take down the 76ers. If they can’t play at a high level, their season will be over. It’s the highest possible stakes, and fans will get to see what the Pacers are made of against a tough opponent.