INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana doesn't do anything easy.
Don't say you're surprised.
Perhaps, for those who love psychology and drama, that's a good thing. Make it tough, bask in the negativity (Roy Hibbert a non-factor – again! Lance Stephenson passionate to a fault – again!), rise to the challenge.
It worked -- barely -- against eighth-seed Atlanta. Will it work against fifth-seed Washington, coached by former Indiana Hoosier Randy Wittman as if it means business?
For one Monday night and a 102-96 series-opening loss, no.
For a seven-game series?
Don't even try to say you know.
“We know this will be a war,” Wittman said.
Good stories are based on conflict, and the Pacers have plenty of that, from Hibbert's continued ineffectiveness (except for Game 7 against Atlanta) to Stephenson's edgy emotionalism (sometimes a guy just doesn't want taken out of the game) to a top-seed playing with never-ending vulnerability.
The Pacers tease when they don't disappoint.
And yet ...
It's just one game. Don't forget that. Home court advantage squandered doesn't mean series lost. The Pacers are still playing, and if sometimes looks a mess, well, that can be cleaned up.
Indiana's two-month journey into intrigue held firm Monday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse against a Washington team that had steamrolled Chicago in the previous round and plays like it, rather than the Pacers, deserves a Eastern Conference finals shot against Miami. The youthful Wizards hadn't won in Indianapolis in seven years, and had lost two of three to Indiana during the regular season.
Now, they've won four straight playoff road games.
“In a playoff series, you stay calm, stay in the moment,” Wittman said. “Playoffs are momentum. It's who can stay within that.”
Indiana's smash-mouth style got flipped by Washington's transition game into a 53-36 rebound mismatch. Shouldn't happen, but it did, and coach Frank Vogel has a day to fix it.
“They did the same thing to Chicago. They manhandled them; they manhandled us. To win the series we have to win that battle.”
Or, as forward David West put it, “We have to fight.”
Fight means the 7-2 Hibbert can't play 18 minutes and fail to score a point or grab rebound. It means playing with passion and purpose and, ultimately, getting it done.
“We played with a lot of heart,” Vogel said, “but not enough punch.”
West supplied most of that punch with 15 points and 12 rebounds, but that wasn't enough.
Wizards forward Trevor Ariza arrived as one of the NBA's top three-point shooters and left with that reputation enhanced, in part because Indiana defended him as if that rep was a myth. He was 6-for-6 beyond the arc, with not of them contested. Teammate Bradley Beal didn't match him in long-range accuracy (3-for-5) but surpassed him in scoring (25 points to 22).
Washington wants to run and it starts with point guard John Wall, whose tone-setting approach is in tune with his coach. He totaled 13 points, nine assists and one turnover.
Can you say, difference maker?
“We have to have pace,” Wittman said. “It's not fast-break points, but after a score you rush it up the floor, move it side to side, and not fight the shot clock.”
As for Stephenson's verbal outburst for being taken out for Evan Turner with a minute left in the third quarter and the Pacers trailing by six, Vogel said, “I did notice his reaction. You can't play everybody 48 minutes. You have to trust your bench.”
The Pacers slept walked through the first 12 minutes. They shot 21.7 percent, had five turnovers and defended without urgency. Washington capitalized to lead by as many as 14 points before ending the quarter ahead 28-15.
Indiana's 16-2 run in the first three minutes of the second quarter produced its first lead at 31-30. Washington's response -- a 9-2 momentum-regaining run. The Wizards managed a 28-28 second-quarter tie for a 56-43 halftime lead.
The Pacers surged again late in the third quarter. Credit a defense that forced Washington to miss 12 straight shots over the last six-minutes. The result -- the lead was down to 69-62 entering the fourth quarter.
Indiana had a chance.
And then it was lost. Or, rather, Washington ripped it away. The Pacers can't afford a repeat in Wednesday's rematch.
“Our backs are against the wall,” West said. “We have to come out with a better level of aggression.”
Easier said than done.