– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
WASHINGTON — More than making sure that the Washington Wizards got off on the right foot in the 2017 NBA Playoffs, John Wall was also making up for lost time on Sunday afternoon.
In his first playoff series since an injury cost him significant playing time in the conference quarterfinals two years ago, Wall had 15 of his 32 points in the third quarter as fourth-seeded Washington pulled out a 114-107 victory over the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round series.
These teams met in the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals, with the top-seeded Hawks pulling out a six-game series win after Wall, who led the Wizards to a Game 1 victory in Atlanta, missed the next three games due to a fractured left hand and wrist suffered in that contest. Any realistic shot the Wizards had then of beating the Hawks ended with his injury, but the realistic opportunity of the team making it to the conference finals this season started with Wall’s one-man wrecking crew display to give Washington a 1-0 series lead this time around.
When asked whether the injury and the missed opportunity against the Hawks was on his mind before the start of today’s game, Wall’s response was, “Yeah, totally.”
“That was the last time I was in the playoffs. Had to miss two, three games, and that was big for us. But, at the same time, I can’t come in here with that all on my mind to try and do it by myself. I have great teammates. Without the other 14 guys and my coaching staff, I wouldn’t be the player that I am and be in the position we are as a team.”
While Wall had a decent first half, scoring 13 points and providing seven assists, Atlanta was able to turn around an early 11-point first quarter deficit and take a 48-45 lead into halftime. Then the next 12 minutes belonged to Wall. Ten of Washington’s 16 field goal makes in the third were either shots Wall made or assisted on. (He made six of nine shots in the quarter). Wall also had three rebounds and four assists in the frame, as the Wizards almost made as many field goals in the quarter than they did in the entire first half (17), all while shooting almost 60 percent from the field in the frame.
“Does he have to have 25 points to say that he took over a quarter?,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks joked after a reporter tried to describe Wall’s third-quarter performance when asking a question. “John can take over games, he can take over quarters, he can take over plays. He’s a tremendous competitor. He plays with toughness and he gets shots – 32 [points] and 14 [assists] – that’s high-level, all-star game. Not only is he one of the best players in his position, he’s also one of the best players in the league. I see that every day and I’m happy for him.”
Wall also was integral in playing a leadership role to teammates that were playing on the playoff stage for the first time. That included power forward Markieff Morris, who scored 21 points, had seven rebounds and was a defensive presence all game, evidenced by his four blocks. Probably the biggest impact he had today was his defense on four-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap, who was held to just eight shot attempts (he made five) while only grabbing two rebounds, almost six below his season average on the boards.
“The intensity was sky high the whole game,” said Morris, playing in his first NBA playoff game. “John [Wall] told me before the game it was going to be like that, so we just had to raise our play and play as hard as possible every play.”
The epitome of Morris’ comment came late in the second quarter, when the Hawks built a lead and had taken the crowd, which was raucous at the beginning of the game, out of it for a large part of the second quarter. Morris dove for a loose ball after defending Millsap on the perimeter, eventually laying on top of Millsap, who believed he was being fouled. A jump ball was called, and the Verizon Center crowd sensed that the hustle play was going to be the type of play that was going to get Washington back into the game. It did.
To at least one Hawks player, that play epitomized how he thought the Wizards were playing throughout the contest.
“The difference in the game was that we were playing basketball and [the Wizards] were playing MMA,” stated Millsap at the beginning of his press conference.
Most of the first half felt like a game that only a pugilist would love, as the Hawks benefitted from the series of fouls from the Wizards to make 19 of 22 free throws in the first half on their way to a 48-45 lead. The trips to the free throw line helped Atlanta slow the game down against the Wizards, who clearly want to push the tempo against the more half-court oriented Hawks.
Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer does believe that it wasn’t necessarily the increased pace from the Wizards in the second half that turned the game on its head.
“We certainly didn’t intentionally change the pace or slow it down from the first half to the second half,” said Budenholzer. “To some degree, it’s always a make-miss league. They start making some shots and we need to convert on our end. We’ll look at the third quarter and film. Statistically, it doesn’t look like it was transition. They created fouls. they created bonus situations by attacking in transition. So there was no intention to change the pace from half to half.”
Atlanta will look to even the series on Wednesday night before the tie heads to Philips Arena in Atlanta on Friday.