INDIANAPOLIS — It took five games and parts of two series, but John Wall finally resembled a playoff rookie at the frantic end of a tight game.
He rushed three-pointers he didn’t need to take in the final minutes.
He dribbled into a bungle of bodies and turned the ball over.
The 23-year-old point guard of the most surprising team in these NBA playoffs looked like the inexperienced youngster most of his critics thought he would look like long before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“Some nights you’re going to miss shots, but I didn’t play great,” the Wizards’ floor leader said, moments after his dreadful 2-for-13 night from the field. “I feel like I lost the game for my team. We still had a chance to win the game at the end.
“I feel like if I played better, took shots I usually take if I can have them all over again . . . . Just defensively, though, I didn’t play the way I’ve been playing. And we didn’t get stops near the end.”
Game 2 was a very winnable game for Washington, one the Wizards led with less than five minutes left amid the panic of the Hoosier State possibly going down 0-2 in their best-of-seven series.
It was also their first playoff road loss after starting 4-0 and their first road loss of any kind in more than a month. Translation: Relax. They aren’t trending toward elimination; the Wizards hoped to do exactly what a developing playoff team should do, grow from a loss in a game they didn’t play well in for long stretches.
If this was a winnable game for Washington — and until the last 24 seconds, it was — Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse also represented an instructional tool on how better to attack a vulnerable opponent on their home floor in a game the Pacers badly needed if they had any realistic plans of winning this series.
They can reconcile that the Pacers needed this victory more and were bound to come out with a back-to-the-wall performance, which included a rejuvenated former Hoya.
Roy Hibbert, with John Thompson III, and his agent David Falk in attendance, looked like a changed man in the middle. After bageling Game 1 with no points and no rebounds, he went off for 28 and nine, hitting the boards instead of caressing them, being big and forceful for a change.
But more impressive than Big Roy was the Pacers’ defense. They put their hands on Bradley Beal, cut off lanes for Wall and refused to just be beat by such a strong, burgeoning back court.
Wall’s shot may be a concern at some point. He’s only shooting 32.7 percent from the field in seven playoff games and he’s just 6 for 27 against Indiana in two games, a team that has bedeviled Wall offensively all season.
But his ability to do all the other things — organize Washington in the half court, disrupt passing lanes with that pterodactyl wingspan and tenacity, basically change the momentum on the floor with a steal and dunk at just the right moment — compensated for any and all deficiencies from the perimeter.
Randy Wittman wishes he wouldn’t have fired up quick three-pointers late in the situations Wall took those shots. The Wizards coach also knows those shots were borne of desire in the moment.
As much as Wall wants to get his stroke going, if I were Wittman I would impress on his point guard that no one — not Lance Stephenson, not Paul George, not even George Hill, who was fantastic on Wall on Wednesday night — can stop Wall off the dribble.
He can get to the rim when he wants. If he’s willing to take the requisite amount of painful fouls and be sent to the floor a few times in order to get to the line, Wall is going to continue to find out he has an advantage at his position that no one on this roster has an answer for: his speed.
Don’t misunderstand. The Pacers’ winning showcased their own resolve. But this was also about the Wizards gradually learning how to beat a very fallible No. 1 seed.
Everyone in NBA World remains dumbfounded over what happened to the once-great basketball team that was supposed to dethrone LeBron. Lousy chemistry? Hibbert’s psyche? George’s ego? Bad trade-deadline juju? All of the above?
As usual, we have all been looking in the wrong locker room.
Sometime soon it will be time to stop obsessing over what’s wrong with the Pacers and start acknowledging what’s right with the Wizards.
They were on the cusp of becoming the fifth team in league history to win the first two games of a seven-game series on the road — oh, about two weeks after they became the third team to do it in Chicago.
Maybe the Pacers have more left in the tank. Maybe they pull a resolve-filled stunner in Washington in Games 3 and 4 on Friday and Sunday that will help them eventually get back to the conference finals for the second year in a row.
But that would be predicated on the fact that they can win three of the final five games in a series they’ve been outrebounded, slightly outshot and outplayed for much of the first 100 minutes. That would be predicated on the belief they are the superior basketball team in this series.
They have twice as many all-stars as the Wizards. They have almost three times more recent postseason experience. They had 12 more regular season wins. They had home-court advantage.
But I don’t believe they have a better team. Though they won’t come out and say it, I don’t believe the Wizards think so either.
This game reminded me of their one loss in the Chicago series, where one player (Mike Dunleavy) went crazy and they had some letdowns. In Game 2 against the Pacers, it was Hibbert.
The pressure on the Pacers to win Game 2 was huge. Just like the first round against Atlanta, they had to deal with their psyches and chemistry being questioned in Indiana.
That pressure is not gone based on this victory. The best they can hope for is to keep flustering Wall and hope he keeps missing from outside the key and forgetting he’s quicker than any of them.
“Do you really think you cost your team the game?” Wall was asked.
“I think so. That’s just how I am. Criticism is coming at me whether we win or lose and I’m the point guard, so I take it on me.”
Beal put a more positive spin on the loss, one much of the locker room echoed afterward. Just because they let one get away doesn’t mean they didn’t accomplish something important in Indiana.
“At the same time, we got one,” Beal said. “The series is tied now and it’s the first to three more. It’s grind time now. We have to bear down and protect our house.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.