By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
WASHINGTON – John Wall‘s breakthrough this season for the Washington Wizards, beyond staying healthy, has been his ability to take the team’s pulse, on the fly, and more often than not provide precisely the right mix of scoring, playmaking, defense, leadership and pace.
It’s a tricky formula, crafted from feel rather than from recipe, tweaked from night to night, subject to the competition, swings in momentum and assorted circumstances. And at the moment, it’s off. Way off. “New Coke” off.
Wall’s growing maturity in reading a game hasn’t averted Washington’s 2-1 hole in the best-of-seven series with the Indiana Pacers. Even when he reverted to some me-first tactics in the ugly Game 3 Pacers victory, his teammates didn’t prosper, the payoff wasn’t there and the fourth-year point guard never could find the right gear.
“John was trying to push it,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said after the 85-63 loss. “I didn’t think we had [four other] guys running with him the way we are capable of doing,”
Springtime is for graduations, but this is a school with few shortcuts to a degree. As eager as Wall and the Wizards are to startle the NBA again (having already beaten Chicago) by advancing to the Eastern Conference finals, class still is in session for the playoff newbies.
Playoff games come rapidly. Series, even those that go long, begin and end in a fortnight. Guys like Wall and Bradley Beal can learn as they go, but a lot of what they’re uploading now won’t fully get processed until they’re done. The Wizards will be better for this – whatever this is, all the way up to The Finals – in the coming years. But it’s coming at them now.
“I can’t even process it or even think about it,” Wall said after practice Saturday at the Verizon Center. “Basically you’re trying to prepare yourself and think about each game, and look forward to the next one. We’ve put [Game 3] behind us. Watched film today of what we need to do and what we’re capable of doing.”
The video from Friday’s game revealed plenty of the former, in all its conspicuous absence, but not much of the latter. There wasn’t a Wizard among them who played well; forward Trevor Ariza was the best of the bunch with 12 points and 15 rebounds, but Washington needed something more like Ariza’s Game 1 output offensively (22 points).
The rest of them missed shots, missed free throws or turned over the ball, and Wall did all three, with the additional culpability of not dictating the pace better for their offense. Forty-eight hours after bemoaning their inability to run – they had just a lone fast-break point in Game 2 – the Wizards knew they had failed again in merely tying Indiana, 8-8, in that stat in Game 3.
Wall knew, too, that “pace” is bigger than a few quick, breakout baskets.
“It ain’t just about pushing and trying to get fast breaks,” the point guard said. “It’s about putting pace into the game and getting a lot of possessions. That’s when we’re at our best.”
“Just after misses or makes, I think we still have to push the ball. Sometimes when they make it, we try to walk the ball up the court. Then you’re getting into your offense at like 10 or 11 seconds – then you’re basically going to stay on one side of the court the whole time. We’re a better team when we get it up there at 18, 19 seconds and go side-to-side to make those guys move.”
Spotty ball movement contributed to Washington’s 32.9 percent shooting (24 of 73). That led to Wall forcing a few things, which led to his seven turnovers. In this series so far, he is averaging 11.3 points, 7.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals. In the two losses, Wall has missed 18 of his 26 shots and owns a minus-25 in the Wizards’ 26-point scoring deficit.
While Beal, the 20-year-old shooting guard, has boosted his performance in the postseason – from 17.1 points per game to 19.6, from a 14.3 PER to 17.7 – Wall has not. He is shooting 34.2 percent (15.8 percent on 3-pointers), his offensive/defensive ratings have flipped (106/104 in the regular season, 98/102 now) and his own PER has fallen from 19.5 to 14.5.
Wall, 23, continues to work and learn daily from Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell, who was a master of mid-range shots and pace (without nearly Wall’s foot speed). The point guard and Wittman talk 1-on-1 almost daily, and especially after games. “We’ll sit down again [Sunday] morning and go over some things that I think he’ll be able to take advantage of,” Wittman said. “But we’ve always done that.”
The Pacers don’t expect that chat to get too intricate. “I think our guys are just running back and praying because it’s obviously a very tough assignment to stop him in the open court,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys made some spectacular plays in those open-court situations, but you can just hope to limit him as much as possible, he’s so electric.”
Paul George said his team remembers all too well the 37 points Wall hung on them in April 2013 when he shot 16-for-25. “We understand that at some point, he’s going to have a good game,” said George, an East All-Star teammate of Wall in February. “He can single-handedly beat us.”
Wall claimed the Wizards’ loss in Game 2 was his responsibility, though it seemed more like a leadership move than an accurate assessment. He was back to exuding confidence Saturday in spite of the second defeat.
“I think I’m going a good job. Nobody on our team’s really shot the ball well this series, to be honest,” Wall said.
“The Game 2 loss was definitely mine. But other than that, I just run my team as much as possible. Try to get those guys going. I know my team feeds off how I get into the paint, how I get guys open shots, and also create for myself. So unless I’m doing that job, then I’m not doing my job.”