During the Washington Wizards’ playoff opener, John Wall wanted to stay in the present but be inspired by the past. The point guard still hasn’t gotten over what happened in the playoffs two years ago against the Atlanta Hawks: He suffered fractures in his left hand and wrist, then turned into a spectator for three games as the Wizards lost in the second round.
As a new series with the Hawks began Sunday, Wall reminded himself that vengeance doesn’t need to be personal.
“I can’t come in here with that all on my mind and try to do it by myself,” he said.
But in moments like this, Wall shines brightest. During the Wizards’ 114-107 win over the Hawks, he stood out among the stars.
Wall scored a playoff career-high 32 points to go with 14 assists and performed at his peak in the third quarter, altering a sluggish offensive game with a series of heart-pounding plays. Although Wall said he needed to temper his desire for redemption by depending on his teammates, after one of his flashes of brilliance, he couldn’t help but point to the Verizon Center floor, delivering an unmistakable message.
“This my house,” Wall said. “I’m letting them know, this my house.”
During the Wizards’ resounding 38-point third quarter, Wall made 6 of 9 shots from the field, including a three-pointer that hit the rim and bounced up only to find its home through the net. Wall had to shrug on that one, mimicking the iconic reaction Michael Jordan made during Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals.
Later, a reporter posed a question to Coach Scott Brooks about how Wall “kind of” took over third quarter,
“Kinda?” Brooks quipped.
“Does he have to have 25 points to say that he took over a quarter?” Brooks said, continuing his lighthearted jab. “John can take over games. He can take over quarters. He can over plays. . . . Not only is he one of the best players in his position, he’s also one of the best players in the league.”
Wall dominated that quarter, but he found a steady complement in Markieff Morris, who scored 21 points and pulled down seven rebounds in his playoff debut. The play from his teammate partially explained Wall’s celebrations.
“If I’m scoring or my teammates are scoring, I’m always going to be hyped,” Wall said. “I get more excited when I get a nice assist than I do scoring.”
As the only Wizards starter not to have experienced the playoffs, Morris spent the week leading up to Sunday answering questions about how he thought he might react.
It’s almost an impossible prediction, trying to forecast how it will feel when a sold-out crowd of 20,356 bellows “Let’s Go Wizards!” before the national anthem, then the lights drop and energy fills the arena.
“The intensity was sky high the whole game,” Morris said after playing 38 minutes. “John told me before the game it was going to be like that.”
For this big moment, Morris brought along his support system. Sitting baseline beside good friend Thomas Robinson, a D.C. native who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, was his twin, Marcus Morris. Marcus wore one gold and one silver chain representing the brothers’ motto, F.O.E. (Family Over Everything), as well as a white Wizards No. 5 “Morris” jersey. It must be noted that Marcus Morris plays for the Detroit Pistons — but, of course, family over everything.
“I wouldn’t say [Marcus will be] in my jersey, but he’s going to be here every game,” Markieff Morris said. “I don’t have enough jerseys.”
Morris gave his family a show during that third quarter, dunking, glaring and making Paul Millsap an unwilling co-star in his personal highlight film. After a lob pass from Wall, Morris slammed the alley-oop, jutted his mouthpiece and stared down Millsap.
In the power forward matchup against the four-time all-star Millsap, the edge belonged to Morris, a postseason neophyte who rejects being described as a “stretch-four.”
Morris made 8 of 19 shots, outplaying Millsap, who finished with 19 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the field and two rebounds.
“He accepted the challenge with Millsap from the get-go,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said of Morris. “On offense, he was a beast. We just need him to continue to play like that.”
Leading up to Sunday afternoon, Morris disparaged the term stretch-four as “soft” and willingly conceded the title to Millsap. Millsap, however, did not connect from beyond the three-point arc, while Morris kicked off the third quarter by tying the score with a three.
“They were more aggressive than us in the third quarter on both ends,” Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Usually the aggressor is rewarded, so we have to remember that and take that forward.”
In the first half, Atlanta appeared to be the more aggressive team.
The tone was set on the first play of the game. Millsap came to the top of the key for the ball, while center Dwight Howard screened off Morris. As Millsap made his decisive move to the rim, Morris had little choice but to reach in. Just 17 seconds into the game, the Wizards had committed their first foul, and Atlanta’s parade to the free throw line had begun. The Hawks made 19 of 22 free throws in the first half compared with the Wizards’ 9-for-9 total.
“A couple careless fouls,” Wall said, describing the Wizards’ defense. “But for us to still find a lot of energy to withstand their run and when they had a lot of free throws, we couldn’t ask for nothing more to be down three.”
After Morris’s game-tying three, the third quarter — as well as the rest of the game — belonged to the Wizards. But as his fingers pointed to the floor, Wall made sure everyone understood who truly owned this game.