INDIANAPOLIS — John Wall decided to grow out his beard in advance of his first playoff run, assuming a “grimy” look to show how his dedication to winning trumped the need for a razor. But as Wall’s facial hair has become more wild and unruly, so has his game, and now the Washington Wizards are one loss away against the Indiana Pacers from the season ending and Wall paying a visit to the barber.
The beard has almost become a mask, shielding Wall from being upfront about his struggles. His teammates have confronted him, offered words of encouragement to help him shatter the obstacles in front of him. Wall responds in monotone mumbles that don’t allow the conversations to linger.
“It’s tough. Because we’re trying to talk to him and he’s telling us all the right things,” Al Harrington said. “Saying he’s right here, he’s confident. He’s fine and stuff like that. So we believe him.”
Wall’s postseason debut hasn’t been the breakout performance to propel him into superstardom he hoped. The Wizards won a playoff series with him running the show, but he has been betrayed by the improved jump shot that elevated him to all-star status for the first time. His court vision and general eyesight have been blurred this series after taking a scratch to his right eye from the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson. And the flamboyance and confidence that have become his trademarks appear to have been replaced by doubt and indecision — even as he refuses to admit it.
“Never lost confidence. If I did, I wouldn’t be shooting it still,” Wall said. “I still got my confidence. It’s just not going in the basket. That’s the most frustrating thing.”
His play has told the real story. The Wizards and Pacers have both won decisive games in this series, but Indiana has claimed both close affairs by taking advantage of Wall’s mental mistakes in the final minutes. In Game 2, Wall took two bad three-pointers and got stripped by George Hill late. In Game 4, Wall refused to take an open three-pointer, and his hesitation agitated both Harrington and assistant coach Sam Cassell.
After Sunday’s loss, Wizards Coach Randy Wittman was asked why he decided to stick with Wall when Andre Miller had been more effective.
“Hey, John’s our guy. He’s one of the main reasons why we’re here. And I’ve got full confidence in our guys. It was time for him to be in the game and to close the game for us,” Wittman said. “That’s what we all have to have. The success we have, a lot of that is because of John. I want to continue to put him in those situations.”
Wall and the Wizards believe they could easily be ahead three games to one and not the other way around as they enter Tuesday’s Game 5 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But the difference in the series can be found in the thick gold-chain-swinging swagger of a fellow 23-year-old all-star who was drafted nine spots after Wall in 2010 and signed a five-year, $80 million maximum salary extension a few weeks after Wall last summer.
Paul George has three more years of playoff experience than Wall, during which he has learned that the race to get four wins in a best-of-seven series gives him plenty of time to exploit any holes or weaknesses in the opposing defense. George doesn’t have to fret solving how Trevor Ariza is defending him when he has already gone toe-to-toe with LeBron James the past two seasons.
Ariza was effective in denying George the ball, making him uncomfortable and limiting him to 8-for-23 shooting when the two players were directly matched up in the first three games. But in Game 4, George was 8 for 13 when Ariza defended him and finished with a career playoff-high 39 points.
“I know me and John were in the same draft class, but I know what to expect around this time,” George said. “He’s going to know now that it’s another level. It’s just those guys gaining some experience.”
Wittman didn’t want to use inexperience as an excuse for Wall or Bradley Beal. But eventually every great player is humbled and hardened by the playoffs, then uses that to get better. Kobe Bryant had to shoot air balls against Utah. James had to solve Detroit and Boston and later a San Antonio team that dared him to shoot jumpers. Isiah Thomas had to exorcise demons against Boston, and Michael Jordan had to hurdle the forearm shivers of the Bad Boy Pistons.
Wall has a ways to go before he can be considered among that group or reach the greatness to which he aspires, but his journey is no different.
“I think he’s fine. Obviously, it hasn’t gone the way it’s capable of going for him. The main thing is he’s got to stay who he is,” Wittman said of Wall. “The ups and downs of a series, as good as you feel about yourself one time, it can change quickly. Staying in the moment, learning what the playoffs are all about. It’s a very intensified situation that is different from a regular season game, and you only gain that experience going through it.”
What Indiana is doing to Wall isn’t a mystery to him. He knows the Pacers are sending guards back on defense, sacrificing rebounds to shut down fast-break opportunities. Hill has been a ballhawk, knocking away Wall’s dribbles or stripping him clean if he goes into the lane unsure. And if Wall is able to get past the first or second line of defense, the 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert is waiting to contest.
“They key on me because I’m the head of the snake,” Wall said. “Just keeping playing my game and be aggressive and if I get a lane, attack it. If not, I know with me making shots and missing shots, I’ve got still got to be aggressive because I still got to try to get those guys open looks. That’s what I keep doing.”
The Wizards were able to breeze through Chicago without Wall having huge scoring or assist games because Nene and Marcin Gortat were able to punish the Bulls for focusing so much on Wall. The Pacers’ defense also has neutralized Washington’s front line the past two games, forcing Wittman to lean more on Drew Gooden and placing even more pressure on Wall.
Wall’s teammates still have faith that he can snap out of his funk and the best season of his career won’t end on Tuesday.
“We got to keep pushing him,” Harrington said. “Him, single-handedly, could help us win this series. We just got to keep encouraging him, try to get him back playing the way he was playing.”