By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 1:02 AM
ATLANTA - For nearly two days, John Wall had to hear criticism about how bad the Washington Wizards were and how his jumper was even worse. So he showed up in the gym an hour before practice on Friday to work on his mid-range jump shot with Wizards assistant Ryan Saunders.
After practice, Wall spent more time with Coach Flip Saunders, who forced him to make shots from the same spots on the floor, over and over. So when Wall hit the floor against the Atlanta Hawks, he was confident that he wouldn't have a repeat performance of his rough debut in Orlando.
The payoff was evident in the second half, when Wall nailed back-to-back jumpers and looked for approval from the Wizards bench. "I just felt my confidence built up. I was just trying to find a rhythm," Wall said. "I'm not going to have a great game every night and I hope everybody understand that. I'm just trying to improve, not just for myself but my team."
Wall was able to bounce back with a strong individual performance, scoring a game-high 28 points with nine assists and five rebounds, but he was unable to help his team avoid a 99-95 loss to the Hawks at Philips Arena.
With Wall showing why he was drafted No. 1 overall, the Wizards (0-2) looked nothing like the team that suffered a 29-point loss to the Magic. They played better defense, recording 13 blocked shots and holding the Hawks, a playoff team the past three seasons, to just 42 percent shooting. Al Thornton scored 24 points and Andray Blatche added 18, including back-to-back baskets to tie the game at 84 with 4 minutes 44 seconds remaining.
But all-star guard Joe Johnson sparked an 11-3 run by responding with two long jumpers, nearly falling on his rear end after hitting an incredible fallaway three-pointer over Thornton. Johnson led five Hawks in double-figures with 25 points.
"I was like 'What the . . . ? He made two tough shots. That's why he's an all-star and he gets paid what he gets paid," Thornton said with a laugh about Johnson, who signed a six-year, $124 million contract last summer. "He's a great player."
JaVale McGee was a more dominant presence defensively, as he had a career-high seven blocked shots to go along with eight rebounds and seven points.
McGee didn't score much, but he certainly scored loudly. In the third period, McGee received the ball near the foul line, drove inside and dunked emphatically over Hawks shot-block specialist Josh Smith (12 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks). McGee then tapped his forehead and saluted the crowd as he ran back on defense. Wall could only shake his head and chuckle.
But after McGee picked up his fifth foul in the fourth quarter, Saunders went with Yi Jianlian. The Hawks put the game away by attacking Yi with Al Horford down the stretch. Horford (21 points, 10 rebounds) made a tough baseline jumper over Yi, then caught an alley-oop pass from Smith to give the Hawks a 95-87 lead.
The Hawks (3-0) have won 10 consecutive games over the Wizards, who will have their home opener on Tuesday against Philadelphia. "I saw progress from the first game," Saunders said. "I thought we competed. I told our guys, I'm never satisfied with losses, but I'm satisfied with our competitive spirit."
The Hawks were prepared for Wall's frantic, one-man dashes to the basket and shut him down on back-to-back possessions in the second period. Wall blazed up the court, but Johnson came from behind to strip him, then tip-toed the baseline to save it to Mike Bibby. After Johnson missed, Wall grabbed the rebound and sprinted up the floor, but Smith greeted Wall's layup attempt with his left hand and sent the shot in the opposite direction and Wall flying to the ground.
But after scoring just six points in the first half, Wall exploded for 22 in the second half after realizing that his team needed him to do more than set up shooters. The Wizards trailed 64-59 with 3:02 left in the third period when Wall started taking over. He made an electrifying driving layup, a 17-foot jumper, then drove inside again for a layup. He scored the final 12 points of the period for the Wizards and tied the score at 70 with two free throws. As he returned to the bench, Wall nodded his head and shouted, "Oh yeah. Oh yeah."
Wall's confidence was so high that he even hit two three-pointers, the first of his career. After nailing his first, Wall flashed three fingers and pumped his fist as he ran down the floor.
"He got a lot of criticism these last few days that he couldn't shoot,"
Saunders said of Wall, who was 9 for 17 from the floor against the Hawks after missing 13 of 19 shots in Orlando. "He spent a lot of time with Ryan. I spent time with him. It's going to pay off eventually. I think everybody knows if he gets to the point where he can knock down that 18-20 footer consistently, he's going to be extremely difficult to defend."
Wall was a tough challenge for the Hawks on Saturday, but he is still waiting for his first career victory. "It was a great effort. We accomplished a lot that we worked on the past couple of days, after that tough loss in Orlando. We came back, played great defense," Wall said. "We fought hard. We've just got to figure out how to close out games."