Brandon Jennings has been in the playoffs twice before in his career; enough to know that things change quickly from game to game. That’s how the eighth-year pro earned the gravitas to be a calming voice among the reserves following Sunday’s Game 1 win over the Atlanta Hawks in which the bench was a dysfunctional mess.
“Every playoff game is different. I was trying to tell the young guys, you just got to be ready,” Jennings said Wednesday after the Wizards’ 109-101 win in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference first-round series. “Some nights, it might be your night. But when your number’s called, just do what you have to do for the team.”
Jennings’s number was called with just more than two minutes left in the third quarter of Game 2. Washington was in dire straits, down four points and relying on a short rotation with four players — including its two starting forwards — in foul trouble. Jennings had played 15 minutes in Sunday’s Game 1 win at Verizon Center and come up with five assists, but no points and a -10 plus/minus rating. But three days later, just more than a minute into the fourth quarter, the backup point guard hit a step-back jumper to cut the Wizards’ deficit to two. Just more than a minute after that, he hit two consecutive jump shots, got a defensive stop, and dished to a cutting Jason Smith for the game-tying dunk.
Jennings finished with 10 points, just the third time he has scored in double figures since joining Washington at the beginning of March.
John Wall (32 points, nine assists) and Bradley Beal (31 points) drove the Wizards to the win and a 2-0 edge as the series heads to Atlanta. But it was Jennings who ignited the team in the fourth quarter.
“Many guys pitched in to get this win, there was no question, but he was a big part of it,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said of Jennings. “We were down going into that stretch of the game, he came in, gave us energy, made some shots. That’s how he plays. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, he plays with an edge, and I thought those four [or] five minutes that he was out there, he was active on the defensive end and then did a good job of getting himself some shots.”
At first, Jennings was simply pleased to see his jump shot fall again.
A 2009 first-round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks, Jennings has become a pass-first player. It’s part of the reason Washington signed Jennings after he was granted his release from the Knicks in late February — the Wizards were looking for a distributor who fit their current cast. In his 23 regular season games with the Wizards, Jennings averaged 3.5 points and 4.7 assists.
But Jennings was also brought to Washington to provide depth for a playoff run, which Wednesday required him to fill in for scorers in foul trouble. That’s another thing Jennings had learned from his two previous playoff runs with the Milwaukee Bucks, in the 2009-10 and 2012-13 seasons: Teams need scorers in the postseason. Heading into these playoffs, Jennings had been working on his jump shot daily.
He shot just 27.4 percent from the field with the Wizards during the season, but connected on 4 of 5 attempts Wednesday.
“Well, I been working on it every day,” Jennings said. “I finally shot the ball, that’s the thing, I was finally able to take some shots and shoot with confidence, so definitely a confidence boost … I was just trying to find ways to make plays and make things happen for the team. ”
Jennings wasn’t the only reserve who elevated his play in Game 2. After struggling through a scoreless Game 1 on Sunday, Jason Smith had eight points and eight rebounds Wednesday, often working in tandem with Jennings, who assisted on two of his three field goals.
“We felt like we didn’t really do anything in Game 1, Brandon and myself,” Smith, who is also a ninth-year pro making his third playoff appearance. “So we felt like we had to come out and have an impact on the game … I thought Brandon did a great job of putting pressure on their defense, attacking the basket. He shot the ball pretty well today. At the same point, he was dishing it to everybody out there. He was making plays for everybody. He’s got such a unique ability to find people.”
Neither Smith nor Jennings has ever made it out of the first round of the playoffs. With Washington up 2-0 headed to Atlanta, this could be their first shot at a deep postseason run.
But Jennings knows how quickly things can change from game to game in the playoffs. He will continue to work on his jump shot, and try to be even more focused in preparation for a tougher atmosphere on the road. He would like to find out how games feel in May, and June.
“It’s very exciting,” Jennings said. “The way everything is today in this world, to be in the playoffs in 2017 is definitely awesome. I mean, just for social media, for the hype of where the NBA is today, for everything. It’s a great thing.”