Pacers beating Wizards hinges on their transition defense

They want to play fast, but haven't shown the ability to consistently keep the Wizards from running downhill and scoring with ease. That's the top priority Thursday night.

For the Pacers to have success Thursday in their second and final play-in game, they must ground the Wizards and minimize their productivity in transition.

That’s priority No. 1.

“It’s a very big game for us to control the tempo and the pace that we want to play at,” Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren said. “(Russell) Westbrook will rebound that thing, push it on the dribble, push it on the throw ahead. Their bigs run the floor very well. They got shooters running to the wings and the corners.

For the third time in 18 days, the Pacers face the Wizards — a team that’s averaged 140 points per game and won all three meetings. The Wizards scored at least 132 points in each game.

The winner of this elimination game — 8 p.m. ET on TNT — qualifies for the playoffs and is the 8 seed against the top-seeded 76ers in a series that begins Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia.

The Pacers have been one-and-done in the playoffs in each of the last five years whereas the Wizards haven’t been a participant since 2018.

Coming off a hot-shooting game against the Hornets, the Pacers are upbeat. They like playing with pace and it’s one of the most noticeable changes under Bjorkgren. They’re averaging 16.6 points per game in transition, which ranks second behind the Grizzlies.

“We want to play with pace and the force we play at because I think that’s when we’re at the best,” Bjorkgren said. “It’s even when our defense is more active and more connected.”

But their transition defense has been rough at times, ranking 24th (13.7 ppg). Against the Wizards this season, that number has been 24 points per game — and they were outscored the Pacers 72-35.

If the Wizards are able to get steals or pile up rebounds and go, the Pacers could be in store for a long night.

“Your transition defense has to be elite, superb at all times,” said Bjorkgren. “You’re not gonna take away all of them, but you gotta try everything that you can to limit their transition baskets. It’s a turn and sprint, it’s a talk, it’s a find, it’s a point, holler. You name it.

“Our first three steps and that first three seconds is gonna be very important.”

May 3 was a low point of this Pacers season, and came one game after they blasted the Thunder by 57 points. On May 3, the Wizards scored 154 points, including 96 in the paint, and recorded 50 assists in a win over the Pacers, who were not engaged.

They weren’t communicating well, they weren’t getting to the right spots and they were getting beat. Twenty-four hours later, somebody wanted it known that the locker room was not in a good place and Bjorkgren’s future with the team was in jeopardy.

Those problematic traits were not visible in their win Tuesday over the Hornets, though they did allow 32 fast break points. It was a feel-good win for the team and its fans in what may have been the final home game for the team this season, and with Bjorkgren coaching.

The good vibes returned and were clearly present five days later when the Pacers hosted the Wizards. They lost, but it was a step forward during a chaotic, stressful and isolating season for the players.

“I feel like our energy has been really good lately,” Justin Holiday said. “Why? Not quite sure. I just think there’s sometimes … when I’m feeling sluggish and it’s hard to get things done, and there’s times when things are going easy and things are clicking, and I feel like we’re in a space right now where things are clicking, the energy is good. I thing everybody likes the feeling that we’re in and we’re trying to duplicate that each night.”

Bradley Beal, who was second in the league in scoring, poured in 50 points and 26 points in two games this month against the Pacers. But like Malcolm Brogdon, he managing a hamstring strain.

Westbrook is a walking triple-double; he has one in all three games agains the Pacers, averaging a staggering 27.3 points, 18 rebounds and 20 assists per game. (The Pacers average 27 assists as a team.) He leads fast breaks and is so good in attacking, getting fouled or finding the open man.

“We have to be very, very focused on that piece of getting back,” Holiday said. “Like when that shot goes up, if you’re not a big that’s under there blocking out, we have to make sure we get back and load.

“Sometimes we’ve also done a good job of getting back there but not putting ourselves in position to show the ball-handler multiple guys to where there’s no space to attack.”

Meanwhile, the Wizards’ focus will be on keeping Domantas Sabonis in check. He’s the central hub to the Pacers’ offense. He's had eight 30-point games in 62 games this season, including all three times playing the WIzards.

“We have three centers, we got 18 fouls,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said on Wednesday. “We’re gonna need them. Sabonis is handful, an All-Star player, a hard guy to guard. You know which way he’s gonna go, you know which shoulder he’s gonna go over, which block he’s gonna go on, what shot-fake he’s gonna use. You know that, but he’s good, he’s crafty, he’s tricky and he gets you to bite on some of his stuff.

The Pacers went 13-23 at home this season, but their road record (21-15) was the best in the Eastern Conference. Both teams’ season is on life support thanks to this new play-in tournament.

If the Pacers survive and advance, it’ll be because they set the tempo, weren’t burnt in transition and didn’t let Westbrook erupt for ridiculous numbers once again.