The Washington Wizards will open up the second round of their playoff quest May 5 on the road against the Indiana Pacers.

The Wizards subdued the Bulls in five games, capped by a 75-69 road win April 29. John Wall scored a game-high 24 points and Washington secured a handful of offensive rebounds in the waning moments of the game to keep the Bulls at bay and win their first playoff series since 2005. Now, the top-seeded Pacers await, and the matchup couldn’t get tougher for the young Wizards.

Indiana averaged a margin of victory of 23.5 points in their first two home meetings with the Wizards earlier in the season. However, Washington used a fierce home crowd at the Verizon Center and newly acquired backup point guard Andre Miller to upend the powerhouse Pacers in their last matchup in late March. Indiana has been up and down since the All-Star break in February, and barely held on to dispatch the heavily-undermanned Atlanta Hawks in seven games. Washington ended the regular season with an 8-3 record before knocking out Chicago 4-1 in the first round.

Things came together against Chicago, as the Wizards received admirable contributions from all playing parties despite Wall’s jumper being off throughout the series. Washington will enter the second round well-rested after five days off, and could pose serious problems for a Pacers team that struggled to contain Atlanta. Guards Wall and Bradley Beal continue to come of age and front court forces Nene and Marcin Gortat supply the muscle, while Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster add pesky defense and three-point range from the small forward position. But Indiana may have awakened from their late season slump after finding themselves in a 3-2 hole against the Hawks.

Indiana clearly has the talent to be one of the best teams in the NBA, but a second half slide caused some watchers to jump off the bandwagon. Led by Paul George, the lanky All-Star and a group of talented outcasts can stifle teams with defense and clutch plays. Washington experienced the Pacers at their best earlier in the season, when top-seeded Indiana was firing on all cylinders.

Their last meeting—plus a confidence-building first round series—might be enough to have the Wizards believing that they can pull off a series upset for the second consecutive round. Washington also plays sound defense, but might have the edge in the offensive department as Beal and Wall are the driving forces behind a wide-open attack. Either of Washington’s big bodies can post up, and all three of their starting perimeter players can shoot the three or dash to the rim. The deciding factor could come down to the bench, where Indiana holds the advantage—but it won’t be a huge one. Reserve forwards Booker, Webster and Drew Gooden all shared big moments for the Wizards in the Bulls series, while Miller is as steady as backup ball handlers come.

It’s easy to pick the Wizards, but you don’t know which Pacers team you’ll get. Will it be the one that blitzed the league in the first half of the season, or the one that wilted towards the end and had to claw past the eighth-seeded Hawks, who entered the postseason with the worst record of any qualified club at 38-44. Indiana has been very good, but they’ve also been very vulnerable. Should the latter version sleepwalk into the ring with the hot Wizards, then this series could be over in as few as six games.

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO