For Wall to completely take over the game in the final five minutes of his long-awaited debut — with three blink-of-the-eye dashes to the basket for uncontested layups — the Wizards’ electrifying point guard had to fully shake out the cobwebs, block out nerves and get a layup to finally drop.
Wall scored the first three of his 14 points from the foul line, but was upset that he couldn’t connect on those two shots close to basket as he was fouled.
In the closing seconds of the third period, however, Hawks point guard Devin Harris was defending when Wall crossed up Harris with a dribble to get him off balance, then lowered his head and attacked the basket. Wall felt the contact, then tossed a shot off the glass and circled his way to the foul line, taking a few pats on the chest before making the free throw to give his team a 73-66 lead.
“At the beginning, I felt like I had jiggly legs,” Wall said. “A couple of my layups, I left short because I didn’t have my legs. Once I felt the comfort level in my leg, I just started making plays.”
Wall said he didn’t feel any discomfort in his ailing left knee, but that bank shot opened his eyes to what would be possible later in the game: not only would be able to get inside at will but he could also finish when he arrived.
The final result came as no surprise to A.J. Price, who started ahead of Wall as he works himself back into game shape.
“I could expect it, because I’ve been guarding him in practice. I know how impressive he’s been,” Price said with a laugh. “The speed is there. Even though he’s not 100 percent. He’s still very, very tough.”
Coach Randy Wittman sat Wall to start the fourth quarter but brought him back into the game in place of Price with 6 minutes 15 seconds left and the Wizards leading, 83-75. The next three offensive possessions weren’t pretty, with Nene picking up an offensive foul and Wall having his shot blocked by Hawks guard Jeff Teague. Al Horford made a foul line jumper to bring his team to within six points.
After another poor sequence that resulted in a Nene turnover, the Wizards lucked up when Josh Smith missed two free throws. Wall then put the game away with his lethal, dribble penetration, blowing past Teague for easy layups on consecutive possessions.
“Nene does a great job of making people go over screens, so that makes my job a lot easier,” Wall said. “It seem like they didn’t want to help when I came off the pick and roll and I just had a couple of lanes to the basket and I took advantage of it.”
Wittman could probably count on one hand the number of times that the Wizards have been able to get uncontested layups in a tight game in the fourth quarter, with generating offense such a laborious ordeal this season. But the return of Wall changes that dynamic a bit.
“It gives us an element we didn’t have obviously leading up to this,” Wittman said.
The Wizards (6-28) have had their share of late-game breakdowns, especially against the Hawks, who claimed two overtime victories against Washington this season. But Wall was determined not let down his team or the fans, who had to wait 33 games into a lost season to see him finally play and save the day.
“It’s exciting because it’s a lot of times they’ve been in the game with us but we don’t close out in the end or get a turnover or we can’t score down the stretch and that’s tough,” Wall said. “That’s my job to come in and make it easy, get us open shots. We make ’em, we make ’em, if not, we don’t.”
Wall made the shots that mattered late against the Hawks but that off-balance banker late in the third set the stage for that exciting finish. “My teammates trusted me,” Wall said. “Gave me the ball and told me to make plays and I basically did that.”