Key Legislature: Wizards 104 at Hawks 98 — Wall Too Cool for Crunchtime Pressure | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Key Legislature: Wizards 104 at Hawks 98 — Wall Too Cool for Crunchtime Pressure

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Updated: May 4, 2015

Truth About It.net’s Key Legislature: a quick run-down and the game’s defining moment(s)
for Washington Wizards second-round playoff contest No. 1 versus the Atlanta Hawks in Georgia.
via Conor Dirks (@ConorDDirks) from the District.

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DC Council Key Legislature

by Conor Dirks.

John Wall crossed the midcourt line as slowly as he had all afternoon. With 1:15 seconds remaining, and his Wizards up just 98-96, those familiar with the team would be forgiven for fearing that the play would unfurl parallel with the clock in frustrating isolation. So many times over the past few years, without help enough to trust and sometimes by design, Wall has borne the burden of these late-game plays alone.

This time, Wall tossed the ball to Bradley Beal, who shot it to Paul Pierce, who could not so much as turn around with Paul Millsap smothering him several feet from the 3-point line. Wall circled back to midcourt and called for a handoff, but DeMarre Carroll denied him room enough to take the ball. Pierce jabbed the ball into the air as time ticked into the ether, keeping it out of Millsap’s reach as best he could. The Wizards looked ready to fall apart. Then Wall sprinted towards Pierce on the right side of the court, and Carroll lagged a half a step behind. After Pierce handed the ball to Wall, the Truth turned to face the basket quickly, his shoulder catching Carroll in the chest, leveling Atlanta’s best perimeter defender.

Millsap, too, got caught in Pierce’s atmosphere, and while Wall whipped around the post-handoff screen like a comet, Millsap spent a critical moment pushing the throttle to its north-most limit.

In that half a second, as Carroll fell to the floor and Millsap watched Wall speed by, Kyle Korver, who was sticking to Otto Porter on the other side of the floor, had to abandon his mark to angle toward a now fully freed Wall. And this is where Porter is so strong. Instead of falling back to the perimeter for what would have been a wide-open 3-pointer, Porter followed right behind Korver. Wall, Korver, and a collapsing Al Horford converged at the right edge of the paint as Wall left his feet.

In midair, Wall saw the seam. As he started to return to the hardwood, Wall brought the ball to the right of Horford’s spread-eagled reach, pushing it through to Porter. At the last second, Korver seemed to remember where his responsibilities were, and looked away from Wall.

It was too late. The dust cleared around the basket, and four Hawks looked on in a half-circle, stunned as devoted adherents to an unraveling cult, as Porter landed with the ball in his hands, locked his eyes on the backboard, and calmly laid the ball off the glass into the hoop. Sixty-two seconds on the clock, 100-96.

The Hawks will take comfort in the wide array of open looks that went unconverted. The wider still difference in ball movement between the first and second halves. But the margin of error will be narrow for Atlanta with Wall so enterprising.

Trying to respond to the Porter basket, the Hawks stalled. Teague dribbled for eons on the right side of the floor, the ball swung only around the perimeter, and the Hawks could not generate any vertical movement toward the basket, a type of movement they thrive on as they force defenses to fold into the ball handler. The possession ended with Korver, who lost the ball in a ball rip against Pierce, recovering it moments before the shot clock would expire. He was forced to shoot a 30-foot 3-pointer that had so little chance of going in that Paul Millsap leapt at the rim as if it were a pass. It bounced off the right side of the basket. Millsap, falling out of bounds in an attempt to save the possession, desperately heaved the ball back into play, but Bradley Beal, barely walking after a brutal ankle sprain, leapt up to snatch it away.

With 3o seconds remaining, the Wizards brought it across halfcourt again. A basket for a Game 1 win. Wall dribbled out the shot clock for a time, his back to Jeff Teague. At the free throw line, Marcin Gortat shouted directions to his teammates, and they spread out around him. Wall didn’t wait for Gortat’s screen as the Polish center came out to meet him, and ran like a pinwheel back around to the right side of the floor before straightening out. Because Horford didn’t follow Gortat out beyond the 3-point line, Gortat let Wall pique Horford’s interest before tiptoeing behind his defender en route to the basket.

It looked so much like the previous play. Again, Wall threatened the rim in a coruscating blaze. Again, he left his feet from almost the exact same, recently scarred spot on the floor. Again, Hawks defenders leapt out at him, and again he made the perfect read. This time, it took the form of a lob to his center, who has been the best roll man in the playoffs. Gortat didn’t bother with catching the ball. Soft as you like, he shepherded the ball into the hoop: 102-96, Wizards. Running back up the floor, you could tell the gravity of the basket took a few seconds to sink in. When it did, Gortat pumped his fist. Then he smiled. Then he yelled, fists at his side, jogging toward his point guard as the Hawks shuffled to the sideline with 14 seconds left and without a realistic chance to win the game.

At halftime, with the Wizards down by 10 points, Washington’s playoff winning streak looked unlikely to continue. Wall and Beal were playing well, but the small ball lineup that so thoroughly decimated Toronto was a net minus. Nothing the Wizards did could stem the tide of Atlanta’s cascading attack, and the pick-and-roll chemistry between Wall and Gortat seemed suppressed by Atlanta’s hard and fast traps. Gortat’s first make of the game didn’t come until the 4:20 mark of the second quarter (it was, as it turns out, on a pick-and-roll lob play with Wall). It would not have been surprising had Wittman, tempted by a basketball devil at this low point, forsaken his newfound commitment to non-traditional lineups and the 3-point shot. After all, the Hawks had never lost a home game this season when leading at halftime.

But Wittman stuck with the new plan, and Washington’s 25 3-point attempts (nine makes for 41.8%) continued the team’s fiery fling with the deep ball. That number was dwarfed, however, by Atlanta’s 38 attempts. Although Washington’s small-ball units ended the game at a minus-3 overall (much of which was accumulated during a dismal first half), the “stretch” unit with Wall, Beal, Porter, Gooden, and Gortat was Washington’s best lineup at plus-4.

My mind keeps going back to what Gortat said after the Game 4 win against the Raptors: this is the recipe, this is the recipe, this is the recipe. Another part of that recipe is defense. Wall and Beal were outstanding in that regard, denying Teague and Korver the ball and working their asses off through and around screens when appropriate.

As mentioned above, the Hawks missed quite a few open shots. Atlanta shot worse on 49 uncontested shots (30.6%) than they did on 49 contested shots (44.9%). But as John Wall was happy to point out in the postgame press conference, the Wizards missed their fair share of easy baskets, and particularly layups, in the first half. The Wizards may not get another opportunity for a poor first half, though. The Hawks, who looked loose and confident at the game’s outset but bewildered by its end, will have regrouped by Tuesday’s Game 2. What worked for the Hawks was playing through Horford and Millsap, both of whom somehow caught Nene and Gortat off guard with their ability to drill shots from the perimeter and attack off the dribble. For Nene, the inability, and at times reluctance, to come out on a shooting big man kept him out of the second half for all but a cursory, courtesy amount of starter’s minutes in the third quarter.

The series will surprise us in other ways, I’m sure. But those last two baskets were memorable. Some might call them a sign of growth, or of maturity, and that’d be alright. But part of me resents the overuse of both of those terms by people with blurred memories of a player who has been great for the better part of two years now, and who has been refining the use of that jump-pass even longer than that.

This has been John Wall’s year. These have been John Wall’s playoffs. He doesn’t look done.

 

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Conor Dirks
Reporter / Writer / Co-Editor at TAI
Conor has been with TAI since 2012, and aids in the seamless editorial process that brings you the kind of high-octane blogging you have come to expect from this rad website. The Wizards have been an assiduous companion throughout his years on the cosmic waiver wire. He lives in D.C. and is day-to-day.