With his furrowed brow, droopy eyes and overall sullen disposition, John Wall mastered in moping before the 92nd and potentially final game of the season. The generally talkative Wall was quiet and didn’t even recite the lyrics of Meek Mill, Lil Durk, French Montana and other rappers that usually get him going.
“John was a little bit different,” Marcin Gortat said.
Still drowning in his frustrations from the past three games, Wall had gone into a shell in the hours leading up to Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Indiana Pacers. Al Harrington and Drew Gooden both tried to get Wall pumped with some chest bumps and words of encouragement, but Wall didn’t appear to become energized until the game started and his adrenaline flowed.
A steal by Trevor Ariza set up a layup for Wall and a steal by Nene set up another and the all-star point guard started to slowly ooze confidence. The turning point occurred at halftime, when Wall’s voice was finally heard. Wall told his teammates that he was prepared to give his all if they were truly about to play their final third quarter of the season.
When he emerged from the locker room, Wall was smiling and even cracked a joke with Pacers backup point guard C.J. Watson while warming up. Suddenly, the player that the Wizards had been waiting to see all series finally showed up to take control, scoring 17 of his playoff career-high 27 points in the period to lead the Wizards to a 102-79 victory.
“I just knew I haven’t played well this whole series, and it’s frustrating,” Wall said. “You can get down on yourself pretty easy, especially when you’ve been playing well most of this series – or most of the playoffs – and just throughout the season, helping my team. I know that if we lost this series, I’d put it all on my shoulders, because I didn’t play well in either game, except for Game 1. I was just really locked in, not saying nothing to nobody, just trying to come out and play my best game. Luckily, God blessed me with just helping me to get over the hump and me being able to make shots.”
The Wizards had been outscored by a combined 42 points in the third quarter in the first four games of the series but Wall made sure they overcame those woes as the team took control of the game by winning the period, 31-17.
Before the game, Coach Randy Wittman joked that the Wizards weren’t going to go into the locker room and planned to stay out on the court during intermission.
“We talk about it, obviously, having a better start a better focus,” Wittman said after the game. “Sometimes it’s just talk. We showed it graphically, where are in all of the other quarters and I think they took it to heart.”
Pacers forward David West made a short jumper to bring Indiana within 45-40 to start the period but Wall took over from there, hitting a pull-up jumper and then finding Ariza sneaking under the basket for a dunk.
Wall later followed with a three-pointer from the top of the key and fallaway jumper from the right baseline to give the Wizards a 56-34 lead, forcing Pacers Coach Frank Vogel to call a timeout.
With his teammates jumping toward him from the bench, Wall shouted a few expletives and slapped some hands.
“I just took advantage of all the shots I was getting through all the other four games, and I just thank God I was able to knock them down,” Wall said. “I knew that our season was on the line. Either our season is over or it’s not. I just wanted to come in totally locked in on both ends of the floor.”
Wall was far from finished. He made two more three-pointers to put the Wizards up, 74-51. He later coerced West into fouling him and made two free throws to send his team into the fourth quarter leading by 24.
The Wizards blew a 19-point second-half lead in Game 4 and Wall was criticized for running an offense that made just one field goal in the final five minutes and for failing to take a wide open potentially tying three-pointer in the final minute of a 95-92 loss.
Wall defended his decision to wait to give Bradley Beal an open look, saying it was the right call. Beal responded to a question about the play with humor.
“I heard the crowd, like, ‘Shoot it,’ ” Beal said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t have the ball yet. How can I shoot it?’ ”
Wittman knew how much the loss stung Wall but told him that at this stage in his career that he needed to develop “thick skin” and move. He also told Wall to “play like a wild man.”
Gortat provided the most impassioned defense of Wall after the game, speaking for nearly two minutes about his value to the team.
“A lot of people disappointed with the way we played Game 3 and 4. But end of the day, I’m with him. End of the day, I’m going to jump in the fire behind this guy. He plays good or bad, I’m going to have his back and that’s what I told him before the game,” Gortat said. “We can’t put pressure on the guy who play for the first time in his life in the playoffs. He’s whatever, 23, 24 years old, whatever how old. We can’t put pressure on him like that. And we can’t just blame the kid every time the team lose, we blame him. I understand he’s the leader, he’s the head of the snake. But there is another 12 guys on the team, there’s another six, seven coaches on the team. You can’t blame one guy for that. I understand the business. When he scores 30 and 15, the team is winning, everybody is going to be excited, everybody is going to tap his shoulder, but when team loses, he’s going to be blamed for everything. We can’t do this kid like that. He wants to win.”
And on Tuesday, Wall led the Wizards to a Game 6.