INDIANAPOLIS — Washington's basketball franchise hadn't experienced the pleasure of winning a second-round playoff game since the Ronald Reagan administration and hadn't won a game of any kind in Indiana since George W. Bush was in office, but when the Wizards arrived at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday for their Eastern Conference semifinal game against the Pacers, the Wizards were more concerned with making history than allowing the failures of the past to haunt them.
The Wizards, rested and ready for the top-seeded Pacers, jumped out to an early lead and held on for a 102-96 victory that scratched two glaring and embarrassing marks off the list. Bradley Beal scored a game-high 25 points and Trevor Ariza had 22 as the Wizards won their fourth straight road game in the playoffs and took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"Our goal from the beginning of training camp was just to make the playoffs, but after a while, you kind of build a little confidence and feel like you belong," John Wall said after scoring 13 points and handing out nine assists.
Washington won a second-round playoff game for the first time since 1982 — before all but three members of the team were born — and also ended a 12-game losing streak in Indiana, dating to April 11, 2007.
Beal became the first player in NBA history to have three playoff games with at least 25 points before his 21st birthday, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter.
"The way I think about it, I'm 20 years old, playing in the playoffs, something I always dreamed about, so why not embrace it? Why not accept that challenge?" Beal said after also contributing seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals. "I'm just having fun on a great team. Whenever we play together and play the right way, it motivates me to the be the best player I can be."
Ariza took his matchup against Paul George personally, limiting the All-Star forward to 18 points on 4-for-17 shooting. Ariza also matched his own franchise playoff record with six 3-pointers.
Drew Gooden — one of three players on the Wizards' roster with NBA finals experience — was used sparingly in the first round, with coach Randy Wittman relying on the hustle of Trevor Booker to help Washington match the physicality of the Chicago Bulls. Against Indiana, he presented a favorable matchup for Washington, given his ability to rebound and spread the floor. During a timeout, a Pacers fan told Gooden that he thought he had vanished from the NBA. Gooden, who was signed in late February, laughed and said: "I did, but they pulled me back in."
Marcin Gortat said before the game that he hoped center Roy Hibbert would continue his postseason vanishing act, claiming that he'd be OK if Hibbert finished with two points and no rebounds. The Pacers would have preferred to have that much production from Hibbert, who finished scoreless with no rebounds and five personal fouls in 18 minutes.
"We're at the point where we really need Roy, and we need him now," George said of Hibbert
Gortat had a double double with 12 points and 15 rebounds, and Nene contributed 15 points.
The Wizards had five days to get prepared for the second round after eliminating the Bulls in five games, a series victory that did wonders for their confidence. Indiana had been an unforgiving place for Washington over the past seven years. This regular season was no different, as the Wizards had the third-lowest scoring total in franchise history with 66 points in one game, notched a measly 73 in the other and got blown out by a combined 47 points.
But when the teams met in Washington in late March, the Wizards figured out the best way to beat the Pacers was to run them out of the gym. They had 18 fast-break points in a 91-78 victory.
Ariza got the Wizards off to the best possible start by draining two 3-pointers to open the game. Wall then fed Gortat cutting to the basket for a layup to put the Wizards ahead 8-0 and force Pacers coach Frank Vogel to call a timeout. The Wizards continued to build upon the lead, going ahead 23-10 when Ariza hit his third 3-pointer. Ariza hit another long jumper to put the Wizards up 28-15 as Washington led after one quarter for the sixth straight game this postseason.
Wall scored six of his nine points in the first 12 minutes. But he and Ariza sat to start the second period and the lead quickly vanished. Getting a huge lift from David West and their reserves, the Pacers went on a 14-2 run to start the quarter and take their first lead of the game, 31-30.
The Wizards proved to have the appropriate counter, with Nene making a driving layup and a jumper over Roy Hibbert. Ariza hit two more 3-pointers and gave the Wizards a 49-41 lead. Beal buried another 3-pointer to put the Wizards up by 11, and Gooden made a jumper to send them into the locker room with a 56-43 lead.
If the Pacers fans hadn't already seen the team lose two home playoff games to the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, they might have been surprised by the Wizards' first-half onslaught. But the home-court flameout has been a tradition in recent weeks for Indiana, which finished with the NBA's best home record in the regular season but is now 4-4 in its past eight at home.
"Yeah, we won one game here in Indiana, but at the same time, we still got to get three more," Beal said.