The Mercado Wire (5/7/2014)

Steven Mercado

Steven Mercado

With the first game of the Conference Semifinals done, there is one Eastern Conference team showing it is capable of thwarting the Miami Heat’s chances at a three-peat.

No, it is not the Indiana Pacers, who finished the regular season with the best record in the East at 56-26. It is not the Pacers team that, over the last couple of years, was the favorite to give the Heat the biggest challenge for the Eastern Conference crown. Not the team with Roy Hibbert, the guy some people saw as the best big man in the league next to Dwight Howard last year.

It is the Washington Wizards — a team who barely managed to stay above the .500 mark with a 44-38 record.

Both teams are a testament to the fact that regular season records do not matter in the playoffs. The team that plays together, plays the hardest and wants it most — along with the right amount of talent — is normally the team to take the title.

The Pacers have not done any of those things during the last two months of the season. They went 12-13 and looked completely out of sync. Hibbert, a two-time all-star, averaged 8.3 points per game and 4.1 rebounds per game during the final two-month stretch of the season.

During the first round series between the Pacers and the Hawks, Hibbert averaged a miniscule 5.3 points per game and 3.7 rebounds per game. However, his struggles do not stop there. In Game 5 and Game 6 of that series, Hibbert put up a big, fat doughnut in the points column. He laid the egg again in points and rebounds in Game 1 of the second-round series against the Wizards.

Indiana sure wishes they had last season’s Hibbert back, who averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds a game in the playoffs. It also wishes it had an answer for the young and hungry Wizards.

Washington finally finished a season with a winning record for the first time since 2009. As John Wall continues to lead this young team in the right direction, the Wizards are becoming more and more fun to watch for the viewers at home and more of a force to be reckoned with among NBA teams.

With a starting lineup of Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene and Marcin Gortat, the Wizards have everything a team needs to win a championship. Ariza, Beal and Wall each have the ability to attack that basket effectively and shoot well from the outside. Wall is a great playmaker, averaging 19.3 points and 8.8 assists a game during the regular season. Nene gives Washington strength in the high and low post and has a great faceup game. Gortat fights for his baskets and is a strong defensive presence in the paint.

Of course, a championship team cannot rely solely on their starters. But Washington has pieces coming off the bench that make significant contributions. Drew Gooden, despite averaging less than a point and a rebound per game in the series against the Hawks, punched the Pacers’ big men in the stomach in last night’s matchup, scoring 12 points and grabbing 13 rebounds — seven of which were offensive boards.

Watching the Pacers’ bigs get humiliated by the Wizards’ hungrier frontline was basically the stamp on the envelope: Indiana is out and Washington is ready to take on Miami.

This Wizards team has already made significant progress for this franchise by winning their first playoff series since 2005 and winning a game in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since April 28, 1982.

But can they handle Miami?
Looking solely at the position matchups, it appears so. Wall should have no trouble covering Mario Chalmers. Beal can matchup well against Dwyane Wade. Ariza has established himself as an elite defender over the past five years, which the Wizards need to stop LeBron James. Nene will cause plenty of issues for Udonis Haslem down low and through his faceup game. And Gortat’s defense should fare quite well against Chris Bosh’s versatile offensive game.

Nothing is set in stone yet. The Wizards still have to clean the mess of a team that the Pacers are off of the hardwood for three more games. With the way Game 1 looked and with Washington being undefeated on the road this postseason, that does not look to be a problem.

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