John Wall has lifted Wizards to NBA playoffs, and now will have to raise his game again

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the Wizards would be better off falling to the number 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and facing the reeling Pacers in the first round. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist April 6

It took four seasons for point guard John Wall to lead the Washington Wizards to the playoffs. He hopes it’s not a short trip.

For the Wizards to have success in the postseason, they’ll probably need Wall to take his biggest step yet. After the Wizards finish the regular season — next up is the surging Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday in a game that will help determine playoff seeding — Wall will have to quickly adjust to the NBA’s most stressful and potentially rewarding time of year.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

The regular season is a test of endurance. The playoffs are all about speed. The first team to 16 victories takes the prize, and the pressure to win will be unlike anything Wall has experienced. Or so he has been told.

Coach Randy Wittman has tried to prepare Wall for what’s coming. The intensity of each possession, the increased emphasis on defense, the expectation that stars will raise their level of play — Wittman has laid it out.

From his talks with Wittman, Wall should anticipate a big “difference in how the [noise] in the arena is, how hard [the game] is played and how fast it is,” Wittman said. “It’s going to seem like a whole new game.”

Wall will have to keep his head in it. It’s not always the best athletes who thrive during what Hall of Famer Magic Johnson — one of the greatest champions in NBA history — calls “winnin’ time.” Generally, for teams to advance in the postseason, stars must be in top form physically and mentally.

The pressure of the playoffs often results in players making mistakes at the worst possible time. Usually, the teams that make the fewest fare best. Wall must point the Wizards in the right direction by playing efficiently.

If that means Wall occasionally has to ease off the accelerator more than he’s used to, so be it. As good as he is at getting to the basket, Wall must realize he’ll have less room to maneuver and pick his spots wisely. He’ll also have to remain locked in from start to finish.

By improving his jumper and committing to playing defense, Wall earned a spot among the league’s best players at his position. He’s one of the NBA’s rising stars. But he’s also a guy who still experiences occasional lapses in focus. The entire Wizards team wandered aimlessly during much of Saturday’s 96-78 blowout loss to the Chicago Bulls at Verizon Center.

In a potential postseason matchup, the defensive-minded, playoff-tested Bulls overwhelmed the Wizards from the outset. The Wizards trailed by as many as 28 points and never led, but “this is a good thing we can point to,” Wittman said. “Whoever it is we play [in the playoffs], this is [the way it is] for every game.

“Not just one game and the next game is going to be a little easier. [The second] game is going to be a little harder. Third game is gonna be a little harder. . . . They came in here, punched us and they won. But let’s learn from it.”

Wall’s individual stats against Chicago — 20 points and six assists — were fine. In the playoffs, though, only two numbers matter: wins and losses. If the Wizards get bounced in the first round, guess who will receive a large share of the blame? “I put all the pressure on me in anything we do [anyway],” Wall said. “Losing, winning . . . that’s just the way I am.”

Wall wasn’t at his best March 31 as the Wizards squandered an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter on the way to a 100-94 road loss to the Bobcats. The Bobcats trail the Wizards by only one game for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, setting the stage for another game with playoff-like intensity Wednesday at Verizon.

For the Wizards, the good news is that Wall doesn’t shy away from challenges. He’s not the type to make excuses.

Although the Wizards had a quick turnaround against the Bulls after holding off the desperate New York Knicks — who trail the Atlanta Hawks by twogames for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East — in Friday’s 90-89 victory, Wall dismissed talk of fatigue being a factor against Chicago. The Wizards want to finish well and enter the playoffs with confidence. They can relax later, Wall said.

“This is what your profession is about,” he said. “You take care of your body . . . and go out there and compete. When you step through those lines, any fatigue goes out the window. It’s all mental toughness from that point forward.”

Wall’s strong performance and maturity have earned the respect of many players who already have proved themselves in the playoffs. Wall had to overcome being drafted by the Wizards.

“For such a young guy to have so much pressure on him, having a franchise on his back, he’s finally able to get to the playoffs,” Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. “I’m sure it’s kind of like a burden lifted off of him.”

Wall worked hard to reach this point. He’ll have to do even more to reach the next one.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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