To the question of whether the Washington Wizards simply could press a button and activate their long-lost defensive intensity for the playoffs, allow Atlanta Hawks star Paul Millsap the first response.
“The difference in the game was we were playing basketball, and they were playing MMA,” Millsap said, frustrated after one of the grimiest 114-107 games you ever will witness.
A complaint about the big, bad Wizards being too physical?
Yep, that button still works.
In Game 1 of this best-of-seven series, the Wizards didn’t exactly take control and make their superiority undeniable, but they did set the kind of tone that you doubted they could establish as they meandered through the final few weeks of the regular season. Their defensive indifference, which caused Coach Scott Brooks to compare their high-scoring affairs to “old-school ABA games,” turned back into the grit that defined most of the year.
They had to change because this game forced them to do so. It was ugly at the start; both teams shot 33.3 percent in the first half. Although offense owned the second half and made the game easier to watch, this performance was still about the Wizards’ willingness to scrap. Because of their defense, they hung with the Hawks, despite their early shooting woes, while playing Atlanta’s slow style. It formed a foundation that the Wizards still relied on later in the game, when the offenses prospered.
Even in the second half, the Wizards were at their best when they were able to leverage defensive execution for offensive exploits. That’s the interesting thing about this team. Look at most of the traditional defensive statistics, and the Wizards usually rank between mediocre and subpar. Their game tilts toward offense much more than Brooks wants. But to say the Wizards are wholly ineffective on defense would be an oversimplified mischaracterization. When they’re at their best, they are good at causing mayhem on defense. And when that happens, they are able to unleash the full powers of John Wall’s freelancing brilliance.
In the third quarter Sunday, the Wizards did that to the Hawks. They scored 38 points in that quarter after struggling to put 45 on the board in the first half. Wall had 15 of his 32 points and four of his 14 assists in that period. Forward Markieff Morris scored 11 of his 21 points. It was a dizzying exhibition of hustle on top of hustle, which led to highlight after highlight.
Brooks is especially proud of one stat that best explains the Wizards: During the regular season, they ranked second in the NBA in scoring after forcing a missed shot, averaging 1.166 points per possession. On the other hand, the Wizards ranked just 17th in scoring the possession after an opponent made a field goal.
In that third quarter, the Wizards acted out that statistic.
“We’ve got John, the fastest guy in the league right now,” forward Otto Porter Jr. said. “He’s going to push the ball. Once we get the ball, we can get out, score easily, kick out for threes and go from there.”
Said guard Bradley Beal: “We continue to feed off of that. Once we get stops, we’re off to the races, and it’s tough to guard us that way.”
It’s more than just collecting fast-break points, however. In fact, in the third quarter, the Wizards only had two of their 25 fast-break points. Wall sped up the tempo in his own way. In those situations, he’s his own transition machine. Even when the Wizards aren’t on the break in a traditional sense, Wall is operating against a defense that hasn’t had the chance to set up, and his team isn’t really running a play. The Wizards are just flowing off Wall, and that’s when his creative genius creates back-to-back dunks for Morris and open jump shots. That’s when Wall is most comfortable creating for himself, too. His shot is smoother. His forays to the basket end with mesmerizing reverse layups.
“Just being aggressive,” said Wall, whose 32 points were a playoff career high. “We started to get a lot of stops out in transition, and I got into a rhythm of knocking down shots and being more aggressive.”
Make or miss, the entire Washington team was aggressive in Game 1. Brooks praised Morris for playing with “force all game long.” He scored early, and he challenged Millsap the whole game. Morris committed four fouls, but he could have been whistled for seven or eight. But this was good, hard, clean playoff basketball, and the officials were right to let the players compete. Millsap made his MMA comment, but the Hawks can’t really complain when they shot 39 free throws to the Wizards’ 17.
The Hawks weren’t unfairly roughed up. Perhaps it was a shock that the Wizards, who don’t always bring the pain, employed a more rugged style. Atlanta will have to match the Wizards’ physical play to make this a long series. The Hawks don’t figure to back down.
Morris and Millsap had a heated exchange after a jump ball in the first half. When asked about the play, Millsap said, “Just two guys playing hard. Just two guys playing hard.”
Said Morris: “It is what it is. If we’re going to jostle the whole series, then that’s what it’s going to be.”
That’s another deceiving thing about the Wizards. You look at their offense and think they’re a finesse team. But they’re not. They have an edge about them. You see it in Wall and Beal. You see it in Marcin Gortat, who dunked on Millsap, yelled and made a hammer gesture in the fourth quarter, for which he received a technical foul. You see it in Brandon Jennings, but it’s also there in players with nice guy reputations such as Jason Smith and Kelly Oubre Jr. And you definitely see it in Morris, who amplifies the Wizards’ style of play with his ability to double as a power forward with perimeter skills and an old-school enforcer toughness.
“When he’s playing as well as he did today for us, we’re unstoppable,” Wall said of Morris.
They’re certainly tough. There’s no doubting that. And if the Wizards have indeed found their defensive edge, there’s very little to doubt about the team overall.
“I think it was just pride for us,” Porter said. “We had to take the challenge. It’s playoff time, so we upped it up another notch.”
They upped it up to MMA-level intensity.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.