Any discussion of the Washington Wizards’ sudden wrong turn in the NBA playoffs starts with all-star point guard John Wall. The franchise’s revival season figures to end abruptly unless Wall finally shows up.
He was mostly invisible again Friday during an 85-63 eyesore loss to the Indiana Pacers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Wall is much better than the lost guy who’s currently leading the Wizards. Trailing in a series for the first time this postseason, they need him to prove it.
Only eight teams in NBA history have come back from a 3-1 series deficit to advance. The Wizards must win Sunday to even the series before it heads back to Indianapolis for Game 5. It’s as clear as Wall’s indecisiveness in consecutive losses.
Wall made bad decisions down the stretch in Game 2 — with the Wizards trailing by three points in the final three minutes, he missed three consecutive shots — and his funk continued in Friday’s debacle at Verizon Center. When a team shoots 32.9 percent from the field and scores the fewest points in franchise history, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
But for the Wizards to get it right, Coach Randy Wittman said Wall has to be aggressive, “and I thought he had a little bit [of] hesitation in his game . . . which we never see. He’s gotta fight through it.”
Although Wall’s shooting has been horrendous throughout the postseason (is there another way to describe making only 15.8 percent of your three-pointers?), at least he had protected the ball. That ended in a seven-turnover performance in Game 3. During the previous five games, Wall committed six turnovers combined. Even worse than playing loose with the ball, Wall is taking it slow.
In general, there are fewer fast breaks in the playoffs than the regular season. Teams place greater emphasis on defense. No one should expect Wall to force things. Talk to his teammates, though, and they’ll tell you Wall has to pick up the pace.
“We can’t win ballgames in the 80s or low 90s. We have to win games in the 100s,” productive reserve forward Drew Gooden said. “We’re playing their pace. That’s not what got us in this position . . . that’s not where we want to be. We like to get shots up in rhythm and in transition. We can’t let them dictate our pace.”
After pausing for a moment, Gooden got to the heart of it. Wall is “the fastest guy on the court, by far, without the ball or with the ball,” he said. “We rely on him to push that pace.”
The Pacers have done a good job on transition defense. “Two bodies in front of him [Wall] at all times,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said.
They’ve made it difficult on Wall to get the ball to Nene and Marcin Gortat on pick-and-roll plays. “Just trying to get into all the gaps and shrink the floor,” Pacers guard Lance Stephenson said. “Make it tough on him on pick and roll . . . then if he don’t get none of that other [transition] stuff, the game becomes hard for him.”
To Wall’s credit, he hasn’t tried to sugarcoat his performance. He shouldered responsibility for the late collapse in Game 2.
And on Friday, Wall spoke in support of fans who booed the team. “We didn’t play the way we were supposed to coming home,” he said. “They have the right” to boo.
Wall has made so much progress as a player and leader this season, you’d like to think he has one more big step in him. Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene and Gortat played their parts well in a 5-1 playoff start that included a first-round series victory over the Chicago Bulls.
It’s just that the Wizards’ impressive opening run probably wouldn’t have occurred unless Wall had provided something positive. It’s unlikely another one will begin unless he gets it back together.
“We understand that at some point, he’s going to have a good game,” said Pacers all-star forward Paul George, among Wall’s closest friends in the game. “That has always been on our minds.”
A big night by Wall in Game 4 could shift momentum, which is all on the Pacers’ side. Wall has a knack for energizing both his teammates and the crowd with one-man fast breaks. It’s what he does best.
Despite the Pacers’ success in corralling Wall, it would be a mistake for them to look ahead to playing the Miami Heat or Brooklyn Nets, battling in the East’s other semifinal series, for the conference title.
The Pacers needed seven games to eliminate the mediocre Atlanta Hawks, dropped the opener of this series on their home court and, with the exception of Hibbert, didn’t play particularly well in outlasting the Wizards in Game 2. There are rightfully still plenty of questions about them.
The Pacers are a long way from atta-boys and slaps on the back, Coach Frank Vogel says. “We’re in no way satisfied,” Vogel said. “We know we’re playing against a great basketball team here.”
It seems like a stretch to say the Wizards are a great team. But the Wizards believe they’re better than the Pacers. After the team’s first clunker of the postseason, what happens next will reveal who Wall is at the moment: either an elite player capable of carrying a team under playoff pressure, or merely a really good one who still has a lot to learn about what it takes to succeed during, as Hall of Famer Magic Johnson would say, Winnin’ Time.
During the exodus of fans from Verizon Center midway through the fourth quarter Friday, an elderly lady wearing a Wizards jersey and a frown shouted at Wall to hurry up and get his “head back in the game.” The Wizards preferred to deliver the same message more subtly.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.