Before he reclaimed his throne, John Wall announced his intentions. He warned all who needed to be warned: the Toronto Raptors, the Capital One Arena crowd, the detractors who felt safe roaming the streets during his flaw-exposing, injury-plagued regular season.
The point god was back. Not just the all-star point guard. D.C.’s point god, as he is declared before every home game. He started with a wicked crossover to ditch Kyle Lowry and a ferocious left-handed dunk over Jonas Valanciunas early in the first quarter.
“This is my city!” Wall barked in celebration. “I don’t play that [expletive]! I don’t play that [expletive]! I don’t play that [expletive]!”
Wall is as loud as he is fast. He does not do subtle. For most of this season, as he suffered through knee problems, missed a career-high 41 games and seemed to impede the team’s progress when he did play, it became popular, even necessary, to wish Wall would tone down his game and his big-dog act. Bradley Beal had graduated to all-star. The entire team had improved. The Wizards didn’t need a savior anymore. They needed Wall to be a better leader and distributor. He scoffed at the notion that his style was suddenly a problem.
Then the Wizards ended the regular season dragging, exhausted from having to qualify for the playoffs without Wall and in need of his exuberance. Through four games of this first-round series with Toronto, Wall has given the Wizards that jolt and reiterated his importance to the franchise. He is averaging 26.8 points, 13 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 steals against the Raptors.
If you watch Wall regularly, you can see that he is still rusty. He didn’t return to action until March 31, and he played only four warmup games before the postseason began. His feel is off just a tad, and you see it during shaky moments dribbling and missed shots that are normally easy for him. Nonetheless, Wall is playing at an elite level, and with every game, he is becoming more of a force.
In fact, Wall has been the NBA’s most prolific offense generator so far this postseason, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. With his scoring and distributing, he has created 57 points per game for the Wizards. That is 4.7 more points than LeBron James. The others in the top five — James Harden (45.3), Russell Westbrook (45) and Ben Simmons (43.5) — trail Wall by double figures. When you talk about the league’s most influential creators, don’t forget about Wall.
In Game 4, he provided the quintessential “Wall is back” performance. He had 27 points and 14 assists. He posterized Valanciunas and backup Raptors center Jakob Poeltl. He barked, he scowled and, despite playing all 24 minutes of the second half, he had more energy than anyone on the court in the final five minutes. The Wizards needed every ounce of stardom from Wall after Beal fouled out with 4:58 remaining. The score was tied at 92 then, and Wall had eight points and an assist during a game-closing 14-6 run. Wall’s smooth baseline jumper with 58.1 seconds left proved to be the dagger in a 106-98 victory.
“Just go in attack mode,” Wall said of his mentality after Beal fouled out. “Even when Brad’s in the game, he’s telling me, ‘Be aggressive.’ At the same time, I’m trying to find him. I’m trying to keep him going and play my game. That gets my teammates involved and makes the job easier for those guys. They are knocking down shots and cutting for me, and I’m going to get my opportunities to score the ball. When Brad went out, I knew I had to do whatever it took: guarding DeMar DeRozan, making plays, scoring the ball and passing the ball. I just wanted to do whatever, so that we could advance to Game 5 tied, 2-2.”
Despite his defiant exterior, Wall has done some deep thinking this season about what he can do better or differently to elevate the Wizards. He wants to remain the biggest star on the team; he always will. But he’s starting to see that his impact can be greater than averaging 20 points and 10 assists. He’s starting to buy into the obvious: Beal is clearly the team’s best scorer, and Wall should be doing everything possible to enhance his teammate’s effectiveness.
Wall still possesses the mentality that the two of them should take turns being an aggressive 1-2 punch, but in the third quarter of Game 4, he was more willing to foster better ball movement, and the results were eye-opening. The Wizards scored 40 points in that quarter after being held to 40 in the entire first half. It was the first time since Wall returned that the Wizards had a prolonged period in which the ball zipped around the court to all five players.
Asked about his halftime offensive adjustments, Coach Scott Brooks said: “Easy. Just pass it to the open man. Make each other scorers.”
For all his greatness and unselfishness, Wall loves to dribble and probe the defense and pass not for the sake of ball movement but to set up teammates for shots. He is an exceptional creator that way. However, the style can become predictable and too exclusive. It can limit some of his teammates who are capable of scoring more, such as Otto Porter Jr.
Now, as the Wizards prepare to return to Toronto for Game 5 on Wednesday, they truly seem as complete as they’ve been all season. In the past two home victories, Wall and Beal have played their best basketball at the same time. Marcin Gorat is back in his pick-and-roll groove. The rest of the rotation is contributing on offense. And the Wizards are playing postseason defense, finally.
At the center of it all is Wall, the point god again. He looks healthy and confident. He looks to have regained all of his explosiveness. His mind is right, too. He is focused on dominating, not proving himself. You know he can put up numbers, but Wall is the only Wizard who can control a game without scoring. Even during his quiet moments, when his shot isn’t falling or he’s deferring to Beal, Wall is still making his presence felt with his court sense, speed, athleticism and fiery attitude.
Markieff Morris is often given credit for the Wizards’ toughness. It should be noted, however, that Wall’s ornery temperament is just as important. All playoff series eventually turn into physical showdowns, and the Wizards haven’t just been up to the challenge. They have encouraged the fight.
“I mean, it’s just about knuckling up now,” Raptors forward CJ Miles said. “It’s a real street fight now both ways, and you can see it out there.”
The difference for the Wizards: Wall is dictating the rules of engagement. He is making this series a street fight and a street race. It seems an odd combination, but not to him.
So there are no cries for Wall to change right now. There can’t be. He has emerged from the depths of injury and imperfection and returned to greatness, snarling all the while.