By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
WASHINGTON – Every coach’s fear in the playoffs is that, if a series lasts long enough, talent will out.
That is, for all the crafty strategies and flawless execution and tireless effort devoted to stopping or containing an opponent’s strength or star, and however effective it might be through three, four or five games, what’s behind that particular greatness will bubble to the surface in time. The great ones – teams or players – adjust and re-adjust, and in time refuse to be denied. (It cuts both ways, of course, but you know coaches, mostly worrying about the other guys.)
That’s how the Indiana Pacers ought to be thinking about Washington’s John Wall at the moment, as they try to close out their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Wall spent most of the first four games stymied by the Pacers’ defensive attention in the halfcourt, their diligence in getting back to slow the Wizards’ pace and his own shooting. But in the Game 5 victory Tuesday that staved off his team’s elimination, Wall scored 27 points (17 in the third quarter on 6-of-8 shooting) and served as triggerman for a road-resuscitated Washington attack.
The fourth-year point guard, an All-Star reserve this year, had carried the weight of the Wizards’ 3-1 deficit through the first four games, taking heat for his 11.5 ppg and 31.4 field-goal percentage. The inexperience at which he, backcourt mate Bradley Beal and coach Randy Wittman had scoffed looked real and very much in play. Wall was starting to withdraw and sound defeated. “It’s definitely tough and frustrating,” Wall said, after a Game 4 finish Sunday in which he passed up a game-tying shot. “I’ve been as aggressive as I can be.”
Or so Wall thought. Then Wittman pulled him aside Tuesday morning in Indianapolis and gave him license to play “like a wild man.” Teammates such as center Marcin Gortat noticed Wall’s retreat personally and made sure to pick him up.
“John was a little bit different [Tuesday],” Gortat said late that evening, after a career night of his own (31 points, 16 rebounds). “For the first time in 102 or 103 games we’ve had this season, he didn’t want to talk to anybody. … He didn’t rap before the game, he didn’t laugh before the game.”
Gortat had seen all sorts of folks assure Wall he would play better in Game 5. Gortat didn’t make hang his support on that, though.
“When the 25th person approached him, it was me, and he was like, ‘I don’t want to hear [anymore].’ I was like, ‘No, John, there’s just one thing I want to tell you: I’m with you. It doesn’t matter which way it’s gonna go. I’m with you,’ ” Gortat said.
“We can’t put pressure on a guy who plays for the first time in his life in the playoffs. He’s whatever, 23 years old. You can’t just blame the kid for everything. Every time our team loses, we blame him. I understand he’s a leader, he’s the head of the snake. But there’s another 12 guys on the team, there’s another six, seven coaches. We can’t do this kid like that.”
Wall played as if unshackled. He got a pair of layups in the early minutes and helped rev the offense to 13 fast-break points while building a 45-38 lead. But it was more than that – the Wizards only scored four points on the break in the second half, yet outscored the Pacers 57-41. It was a pace thing, in Wittman’s view, all flow and timing while maxing out what was available in the 24-second clock. Even the fat rebounding edge (62-23) can partly be attributed to the rhythm with which Washington played, with Wall conducting.
“He gets the ball moving from side to side and we get bodies moving and the ball moving,” Wittman said. “We are not a team that can iso or a team that can do a two-man game. We have to have five guys moving and I thought he was the spark behind that.”
At this late stage of the series, with Wall’s confidence replenished, that will not be easy. The Pacers’ best bet? Stay in front of him as much as possible and funnel penetration toward 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert. Even if it means going under screens, anyone’s best chance against Wall’s wild-man speed is to make him a shooter. Otherwise he gets defenders on their heels, first physically and then mentally.
Beyond that, only a quirky shakiness that settles into Washington’s game at the Verizon Center might help. He’s been one of the Wizards who, all season, has performed better on the road than at home.
But this series may have lasted long enough to cure that ill, too.