PHILADELPHIA – When he spotted Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes reluctantly dribbling up the court, John Wall knew exactly what was going to happen next. Like a cornerback watching a quarterback drop back to pass, Wall waited for Hawes to pick up the ball, made a beeline toward Michael Carter-Williams and got an interception. Wall then gathered himself and exploded toward the rim for a two-handed dunk.
Later in the first half, Wall sprinted the length of the court to track down Thaddeus Young and slapped Young’s fast-break layup attempt off the backboard. The Wizards claimed their first victory of the season on Wednesday against Philadelphia, 116-102, and had their most effective offensive game with 32 assists and a franchise-record 18 three-pointers. But even with Nene returning from a left calf strain and forming a formidable front line with Marcin Gortat, the win was largely the result of Wall playing his best overall game of the season.
“It starts with me,” Wall said. “I’m the catalyst of giving us a lot of energy on both ends of the court.”
Wall scored a game-high 24 points and made a career-high five three-pointers – but most of his long-distance damage came in the second half, after he had already spent most of the night setting up his teammates and putting the clamps on Carter-Williams, an early-season rookie standout who was limited to just five points on 2-of-11 shooting in the first half.
“Coach wanted me being aggressive, being on the ball,” Wall said. “Even though we lost in Miami, the way I was being aggressive, getting after the point guard and not letting him get comfortable is the biggest key. It leads to my teammate doing my other things. I had to do a better job of getting in better shape, because to press up 94 feet is not easy. So you’ve got to definitely get in better shape. I think we was very locked into what we wanted to do.”
Not all 20-point games are created equally and that was never more evident than in Wall’s past two games against Philadelphia. Wall scored a season-high 26 points when the teams met last Friday in the Wizards’ home opener.
In an attempt to demoralize Carter-Williams, Wall scored 23 of those points during an electrifying first half that featured him hooting and howling after almost every made basket. But he developed back spasms in the second half, the Wizards’ offense crumbled and Carter-Williams led his team to a comeback win. In the rematch, Wall was more calm, collected and focused on running his team rather than showing up a rookie.
“I had to lay down with a hot pack on my back but I was a lot looser than I was a few days ago,” Wall said.
Wall got Wednesday’s game started when he fed Bradley Beal for a three-pointer, and he would go on to have five of his game-high nine assists in the first period, when the Wizards scored 39 points. He got into the lane and whipped a pass to Ariza in the left corner for a three-pointer and made a similar move to get Beal open on the opposite end.
“That’s what our team is capable of. I get into the paint and we got a good post-up game with Nene, and Gortat and Kevin and those guys coming off the bench,” Wall said. “My job is to get into the paint. A lot of times, the defense collapses. We was able to knock down shots. That’s the main thing with our team, when we’re executing and knocking down shots, that’s an advantage for us.”
Coach Randy Wittman said Wall is “evolving” and pleased with the way his point guard controlled the tempo. “Anytime you get 32 assists, I think you’re moving the ball. John started it in that first quarter and then it kind of just bleeds over.”
Beal had gotten frustrated over a lack of touches in rhythm in the last meeting against Philadelphia, but after finding a decent groove early, he was content with creating offensive opportunities for his team. In setting a new career high with eight assists, Beal flashed his abilities as a burgeoning playmaker as he found Kevin Seraphin for a layup after a pretty screen-and-roll. Afterward, Beal credited Wall for setting the tone by sharing the ball.
“He was terrific,” Beal said. “He did a great job finding guys early and I told him to stay with it and eventually he got into the flow of the game. That’s what’s going to make us a better. As long he gets us involved and eventually gets himself involved, I like our chances.”
The Wizards should have decent odds of winning if Wall is knocking down three-pointers. Philadelphia decided that it would let Wall beat it from the perimeter and Wall obliged in the second half, when he made four shots from long distance, including two that stemmed 76ers’ runs.
“Just something I worked on this summer,” Wall said. “Some games they are going to fall, some games they’re not. They was doubling the post off me and I just had to be confident to be able to knock them down.”
Beal joked that if Wall kept shooting like that, he would move over to point guard. “It’s fair, but Coach still won’t like that. He’ll still want me to run pick-and-roll,” Wall said with a laugh.