ATLANTA — Bradley Beal and John Wall showed up at the postgame podium looking as if they had just been sparring for 12 rounds instead of playing basketball for four quarters. Beal had petroleum jelly covering two scratches under his right eye that came after Atlanta Hawks reserve guard Kent Bazemore inexplicably kicked him in the face while chasing down a loose ball. Wall had his left wrist and hand heavily taped after an awkward landing that was exacerbated by Beal tripping and falling on him.
At different times during the Washington Wizards’ 104-98 victory over the Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Beal and Wall provided moments of spectacular play and trepidation for a team that suddenly doesn’t know how to lose. Beal matched his playoff career high with 28 points, his third 20-point game this postseason. Wall added 18 points and a game-high 13 assists , extending a string of four consecutive double-doubles that has seen him dish out 55 assists over those games. Beal and Wall have been a representation of the mental and physical toughness required to win at this time of year, having already led the Wizards to more postseason wins in the past two seasons than the previous 27 seasons combined.
“We two guys that’s going to fight until the end,” Wall said after winning at Philips Arena for just the second time in his career and first time this season. “If it ain’t broke, you can’t get us off the court.”
The win almost felt bittersweet after Beal sprained his right ankle in the fourth quarter when he landed awkwardly on Hawks center Al Horford. Beal returned to hobble around for a few minutes but finally got benched, pulled a towel over his head and sobbed uncontrollably as the final seconds ticked off. He continued to weep through a postgame television interview and on his way for X-rays , which turned out negative. With a protective sleeve on his right leg, Beal walked with a slight limp after the game, and Coach Randy Wittman was uncertain about Beal’s availability for Game 2.
Beal scored 21 points in the second and third quarters, helping to cut an 11-point deficit to two in the final period. He then gave the Wizards their first lead since the first quarter when he coolly buried a jumper with his feet on the three-point line and then extended the lead to four with two free throws. A few minutes later, Beal collapsed to the floor and rolled around in agony.
Teammates rushed to assist Beal to the bench, but he pushed them away, pride not willing to give in. Beal limped to the locker room with tears rolling down his eyes.
“He’s definitely not going to quit on his team. He’s a warrior like me,” said Wall, who battled migraines, took some time off late in the season to rest his sore ankles and hurt his right shoulder in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Toronto Raptors. Beal revealed Sunday that Wall’s hand had been bothering him before he hit the floor late in the second period. But Wall was adamant that he wasn’t concerned.
“My wrist will be all right,” he said.
After the Hawks got within 93-91, Wall hit a fadeway jumper, snuck behind Paul Millsap to slap his shot into the baseline seats and fed Otto Porter Jr. for a three-pointer. Wall then made one of his few errors of the night, telegraphing a pass for Paul Pierce that Millsap intercepted and took the length of the court for a reverse layup. Millsap added a dunk to again bring the Hawks within two, and Wall closed out the game by driving and finding a cutting Porter for a layup and tossing a lob to Marcin Gortat for a layup that sent home fans heading to the exits.
“We have a different approach,” Beal said. “Last year, we were happy to be in the playoffs. We were happy we moved on. We didn’t really have any high goals after the first round. This year, we expect more out of ourselves. We expect to get past the second round.”
If this Wizards team — which has won its first five playoff games — still doesn’t make much sense, don’t stress over it. Just tell yourself that late January, February and March never happened. Forget about those bizarre letdowns in places such as Minnesota and Philadelphia. Forget about those moments when you begged Beal to shoot more, Porter looked lost, Pierce didn’t look as if he would be walking upright in May or Gortat fumed on the bench in the fourth quarter.
Marvel instead at what is occurring right now. The Wizards surrendered 37 points to the Hawks in the first quarter but held that same efficient offensive machine to 35 in the entire second half. They became the first team to defeat the Hawks, the Eastern Conference's top seed, at Philips Arena after trailing at halftime. Porter continues to make big shots, grab rebounds and serve as a defensive annoyance. Pierce keeps reminding people why he’s in Washington, hitting a huge 16-foot jumper with less than six minutes remaining after the Hawks rallied in Beal’s absence. And more importantly, Wall and Beal — still two of the three youngest players on the roster — continue to provide reasons to be optimistic about the present and future.
“Those guys got as much heart as anybody in the building,” Pierce said of Wall and Beal. “Everything that happened today is stuff I already knew about us. I knew we were a resilient team. I knew we played with a lot of grit. I knew we had heart. That’s just our identity.”
The Wizards are coming together at the right time, on and off the court. The night before they became the first team in NBA history to win four consecutive Game 1s on the road, they gathered in a ballroom at the Four Seasons and watched the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight together on rented couches.
The unity of this team is evident on the floor as players — namely Nene — have been willing to sacrifice statistics and even their bodies for the sake of success. After the game, Pierce joked with Porter about his “chardonnay”-colored pants, and Nene and Kevin Seraphin both gave Drew Gooden III a hard time for being on the wrong end of a fast-break dunk by Mike Scott. As Nene said after the game, “When you win, everything feels better.”