WASHINGTON — The insults and needling that has been a part of this series – from Paul Millsap claiming the Wizards “were playing MMA” after Game 1 to Markieff Morris responding by calling Millsap a “crybaby” after Game 3 – have made this first-round series one to not take your eyes off of.
If you do happen to take your eyes off the teams for even a split second, you might also miss two blurs at the point guard position who are waged in an epic battle in the backcourt that could be a rivalry for years to come.
In the Game 5 victory for the Wizards, what we saw from John Wall is what we have come to expect from the four-time All-Star for the past few years now – 20 points, 14 assists, six rebounds and clutch play-making to lift his team to another home victory. After missing the playoffs last season and two years removed from seeing his stellar 2015 playoff run derailed by a fractured left hand, Wall is reminding many of how great his play is, no matter how big the stage. That’s not a surprise, and we’ve used up a lot of inches in previous articles on here about Wall’s ascendency into the stratosphere of NBA stardom.
The play of Wall’s opposite number, Dennis Schröder, isn’t a surprise to his teammates, but those outside of the Hawks’ locker room might be left in awe with his ability to keep up punch-for-punch with Wall. Wednesday’s Game 5 contest saw Schröder lead all scorers with 29 points. While Wall was dishing out 10 assists, the German with the dyed blonde streak in his otherwise jet black hair handed out 11 helpers. Late in the contest, with the Wizards up five, Schröder had the ball late in the shot clock and had to heave a deep straightaway three pointer.
Swish. That was Schröder’s sixth three-point attempt – and his fifth make of six. It was 101-99 Wizards after that shot, with 70 seconds remaining in the crucial swing game in this series tied at two apiece.
You can guess what happened next. Wall happened. Off of a screen which allowed him to get some separation from Schröder, he buried a long right wing jumper to extend the lead to four, providing the final points and final margin of the game. As razor thin as this game was on the scoreboard, it might have been even closer in the battle of the point guards, which has been the most enthralling part of this series that has been remembered mostly for trash talking and a rash of fouls.
Even with the close loss on Wednesday and now facing elimination on Friday, Schröder’s emergence into a bona fide NBA star might be the biggest takeaway from this series, regardless of how it ends up. With his Game 5 performance, he became the first Hawk to have at least 25 points and 10 assists in a playoff game since Pete Maravich did it in a playoff game in 1973, and the first Hawk to put up at least 29 points with 11 assists in a playoff game since Lenny Wilkens pulled off the feat all the way back in 1966.
How’s that for company? Pretty soon, Schröder is going to be mentioned in the same breath as the great points guards of today as he puts up numbers akin to the NBA greats of yesteryear.
“I think the confidence that he has, the aggressiveness and the competitiveness, all of those things rise this time of year on the road,” said Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer talking about what has made Schröder emerge in this series to average 24.2 points, 7.2 assists and hit 44 percent of his threes. “He was great. He shot the ball really well. I think he’s gained more and more confidence, and when he’s shooting the ball like that, other things open up for his teammates and for himself. I think his competitiveness and his desire to be really good and to grow is something that we lean on heavily.”
The competitiveness between Schröder and wall probably came to ahead early in the third quarter of the Wizards’ Game 2 win, when Wall, after a fast break one-handed jam over Schröder, gave Schröder a lengthy stare down and shouted profanities at him backpedaling down the court. A younger point guard, especially given the stage, might have wilted. Since then, it’s only fueled Schröder to go at Wall even harder. And that has been wildly effective, with his play spearheading the Hawks’ two wins in Atlanta and a near-victory back in DC two days ago.
After the Game 5 loss, Schröder was asked what it meant to be the first Hawks guard since legends like Pistol Pete and Lenny Wilkens to put up individual numbers as gaudy as his totals.
“I don’t care about stats,” Schroder said matter-of-factly. “We need a win, and that’s all that matters.”
Point taken. Wall’s Wizards may be ahead in the series, with two chances to close out the Hawks over the next four days. No matter how this series turns out, Dennis Schröder has let it be known with his play that he soon will not be taking a back seat to any of those considered the best in the game at point guard.