May 5, 2014

Midwest Matchup

(Editor's Note: Here at ZA, we're prone to waxing philosphical. But once in a while you need to dig in to the numbers. Luckily, for that we've got the best in the biz, our Chief Intern and CFO, Cap City. Below are the fruits of his labors. Enjoy!)
You know the old saying “April showers bring May Wizards playoff basketball games?” Well, it came true again this year! After a brief five-year hiatus, the Wiz are playing for a chance to get to the Eastern Conference Finals, and unlike their past three appearances they will not have to face Lebron James to get there. Instead we get the Indiana Pacers, the bullies from the big city, one of the best of the Midwest, who somehow tricked their way past the 8-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round. To know someone, you must first know where they come from, so here is a brief breakdown on DC and Indianapolis: 


Established – 1816 as new state capital
Population – 820.445
Main Industries – Health know what, the list was pretty short and depressing
Important Citizens – David Letterman, John Dillinger, Brendan Fraser
Famous Basketball Alumni – Oscar Robertson, RANDY WITTMAN, Mike Conley, Eric Gordon
Downside – One of the most interesting things about Indianapolis is that it’s the closest state capital to the exact center of it’s state. Seriously, that’s one of the most interesting things about Indianapolis.


Established - 1790 as the capital of the United States
Population – 646,449
Main Industries – Governing the country and much of the world
Important Citizens – The Senate, House of Representatives, John Wall, the President of the United States
Famous Basketball Alumni – Elgin Baylor (HoF), Dave Bing (HoF), Adrian Dantley (HoF), Austin Carr, Kevin Durant
Downside – High rent – canceled out by being near baller areas

The Wizards have won 8 of 9 coming in, while the Pacers come off a tough series against the Hawks, which followed a 5-8 finish to the regular season. It would appear momentum is on the side of the Wiz, however it's worth noting that Indy was dominant enough early on that it could coast to the finish line and still finish with the 1-seed, and that they did win the last two games of the Atlanta series. Having said that, taking seven games to finish off the Hawks is inexcusable and we’re still not exactly sure how it happened.
Indiana won the season series against the Zards 2-1, with the home team winning all three games. None of the three games were close, with Indiana taking the first two 93-73 and 93-66, and the Wizards dominating the final meeting 91-78. This recent history, combined with both squads' defensive prowess, suggests that points will be hard to come by, even more so in the don’t-give-an-inch playoff atmosphere. The Pacers were first in the league in defensive efficiency (Note: Chicago was 2nd, how’d that turn out for them?), while the Wizards were ninth (Note Number Two: the top 12 teams in this metric ALL made the playoffs, while Phoenix, at 13th, barely missed out. Defense may not win you the championship, but at the very least it gets you get a ticket to the dance). As might be expected in such low-scoring affairs, some of the main contributors for both sides struggled. John Wall shot just 34% from the field and 20% from three, while Bradley Beal, after sitting out the first match-up, averaged just 12 points on 8/31 total shooting in the final two. On the other side, Paul George (from Palmdale) shot 8/36 in the final two games, and had no assists in the Wizards win. A couple guys still put up impressive numbers, as Marcin Gortat averaged a double-double, and Lance Stephenson put up an average line of 10.3/11.7/6.3.

Both starting lineups are fairly certain, minus another ill-timed (but well-deserved) punch from Nene, or Roy Hibbert continuing to struggle. The Wizards will have Wall-Beal-Trevor Ariza-Gortat-Nene, while the Pacers will bring George Hill-Stephenson-George-David West-Roy Hibbert. The presumed matchups would be Wall/Hill, Beal/Stephenson, Ariza/George, Gortat/West, and Nene/Hibbert, but we could see a couple variations. Hibbert, as opposed to guarding Nene, will likely be switched onto Gortat, mainly because he is not as mobile as West and is not able to step out very well. After watching Nene camp out at the elbow for the entire Bulls series, it is clear that whoever guards him will need to move away from the basket on defense. Nene shot 46.7% this season on shots from 16-23 feet (well above the league average of 38.3%), while Gortat is nowhere near as effective. Nene is quick enough to get by Hibbert if he steps out, and Indy's best interior defender would be drawn away from the rim even if somebody else ends up taking the shot. Therefore, it would make sense for Vogel to put West on Nene and Hibbert on Gortat, where he can stay closer to the basket with less risk of getting burned. 
Indiana has been running a 7-8 man rotation, with CJ Watson and Ian Mahinmi getting consistent minutes and Chris Copeland's playing time vacillating. The Hawks series saw Evan Turner and Luis Scola essentially get cut out of the rotation, and barring foul trouble they likely won't see much action in this series. Watson is a servicable backup point guard, and Mahinmi brings size in the middle, although his rebounding numbers are unimpressive. The Wizards bring Booker, Webster, and Miller off the bench, with Drew Gooden playing more or less depending on the foul situation. Miller keeps the offense running, Booker is a solid energy guy who has played well to date in the playoffs, and Martell does what he does, which is solely shoot threes and make funny comments during timeout videoboard segments. The Wizards likely have a small advantage here, but there are no Jamal Crawford-style sparkplugs on either team, and the starters will decide this series.

Both teams play at roughly the same pace, although the Wizards move the ball much better, finishing tied for 7th in the league in assists, while Indiana came in 27th. Washington turned the ball over 1.3 fewer times a game than their opponents, while Indiana, coincidentally, coughed it up 1.3 times more than their foes. These two numbers are reflective of the knocks on Indy’s offense, which are that it tends to stagnate and devolve into individual efforts. 

Neither team plays much inside, ranking 21st (Indiana) and 29th (Washington) respectively in attempts at the rim. This is partly due to the playing style of the teams' big men. Hibbert is not a huge scorer, while West and Nene can, and do, step outside to do much of their work. One misconception is that Washington takes a higher number of shots outside the arc; in fact, Indiana took 1.5 more threes per game in the regular season. The Wiz do, however, shoot it much better from deep, tying for 4th in the league with Golden State at 38.0%, while Indiana was tied for 17th at 35.7%. In terms of defending the three, the Pacers ranked 4th in Opponents 3pt FG%, while the Wizards were 6th, so both do it extremely well. Given that both teams shoot frequently from outside, it is unsurprising that neither crashes the offensive boards very well, although both were in the top 7 in defensive rebounding.
An area in which the Wizards may have an advantage is player fatigue, and not merely because of the rest they’ve gotten since they took care of Chicago. The members of the Pacers' starting lineup played over 500 more minutes combined than their Wizards' counterparts during the regular season, which works out to almost three more games each over the course of the year. Add that to the two more they played against Atlanta in which everyone but Hibbert played heavy minutes, and the Wizards should have more bounce in their step.
My gut feeling is that Wall has a huge series, while Nene and West match each other fairly evenly. George and Ariza is likely the key matchup, as Trevor's recent hot streak suddenly makes it intriguing on both ends of the court. It is unlikely he will continue to shoot as well as he has been, but if he can come close while slowing down George, that would be a win. Hibbert is reverting back to his awkward days and is looking less and less like a difference-maker. Beal could struggle against Stephenson, and the benches are fairly even. The bottom line is that this series will be decided by outside shooting, and the Wizards have better shooters. 

Prediction: Wizards in 6.

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