Wizards throw “the first punch” for sixth straight game


John Wall and the Wizards have been consistently putting playoff opponents in an early hole. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Indiana Pacers all-star forward Paul George drove inside, spotted the 6-foot-11 Nene waiting for him and tried a fade-away short jumper. But George’s twisting, hanging attempt was greeted with Nene’s humongous left hand, which sent George and the ball out of bounds.

Pacers guard Lance Stephenson rebounded a long Bradley Beal miss and sprinted up the floor in a foot race. But as Stephenson went up for a layup over Beal, John Wall swooped in to swat the ball off the backboard. George tried to get the Pacers out on the break 40 seconds later but Wall again came from behind to slap that shot out of bounds.

“You know, guys kind of don’t see you coming sometimes, and that’s what I like to do,” Wall said of his chase-down blocks. “I’m pretty good at it.”

In all, the Wizards had six blocked shots in the first quarter of their 102-96 win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. That relentless defensive attack – which also included forcing five Indiana turnovers – resulted in limiting the Pacers to just 15 points on 5 of 23 shooting (21.7 percent) in the period.

On the other end, the Wizards scored 28 points and continued a trend through the first six games this postseason. Washington has discovered that the best way to overcome any playoff nerves is to take an early lead and put all of the pressure on the opponent. The Wizards have led after the first quarter of each playoff game, outscoring the Bulls and Pacers by a combined 46 points.

“A lot of players learned that if you start a game the right way – if you’re focused, if you’re engaged – then you’re going to have a big chance to win the whole game,” Marcin Gortat said. “We had some games where we started really slow, but so far, the players have prepared. The coaching staff has really done a great job to get us ready for every game, and it’s just the whole atmosphere. It’s just playoffs. The whole world is watching you, and it’s just – if you don’t have adrenaline in games like that, and you can’t bring it from the first minute, there’s something wrong with you.”

Wall energized the Wizards on both ends of the floor in the first quarter against Indiana, collecting six points, five assists, two blocks and a steal. The Pacers dared Wall to shoot and he hit a few jumpers. He then found shooters along the wings, fed Gortat cutting to the basket for layups and hit Nene for a dunk, accounting for 18 of the Wizards’ points in the period.

“Well, kind of I’m the leader of the situation, and guys follow my lead,” Wall said. “I think just my defensive pressure and intensity at the start of the game gets everybody up into the game, and I had a couple easy baskets, a couple open shots, that I was able to make, but I think just trying to get into the paint and make the defense collapse and either give me a shot or give my bigs a shot or find the shooters on the wing – we did a good job of knocking down shots early on.”

Coach Randy Wittman credited Wall for setting the tone by setting up his teammates, getting them involved early so that they remain competitive for the rest of the game. Wall is averaging 17.8 points and 7.2 assists in the playoffs, but nearly a third of his production has come in the first period, when he is averaging 6.5 points and 2.7 assists.

“I mean, he’s been doing that in these two series thus far,” Wittman said. “There’s not very much wait. The trust factor between he and I and what – he understands kind of what I want, and he’s reading that situation really good, but we’ve got to have pace. Again, sometimes people get caught up with pace meaning fast break points. It’s not fast break points. After a score, we’ve got to rush it up the floor, move it side to side where we get three, four, five passes and we’re not fighting the shot clock.”

The Wizards are winning the first period by an average of 27.3 to 19.7 and have taken a double-digit lead into the second quarter three times thus far in the playoffs.

“In the playoffs, it’s kind of the first team that throws the first punch, and that gets you going, lets you know how physical the game is going to be,” Wall said. “We got the opportunity to throw the first punch, and we know what team they are. We definitely know what the Pacers are all about and what they’re capable of. We know they can come back and do it in Game 2, so you’ve got to stay confident and composed.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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