ATLANTA — After the on-court interviews, after the man-hugs with Atlanta celebrities standing courtside, after sharing a moment with Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, Washington Wizards guard John Wall stood alone for a moment. He could finally let loose. He crouched, extended his arms and roared into a television camera filming him.
In a quieting Philips Arena, as the Washington Wizards’ series-clinching 115-99 victory over the Atlanta Hawks sunk in, the loud celebration of Wall carried in the 18-year-old building. The player the Atlanta Hawks could not stop, the one whose monstrous talent came together like never before in this first-round playoff series, exited as boldly as he had played for six high-speed games.
Wall didn’t just play well, didn’t just do what an all-star does. He arrived as an NBA superstar. No qualifiers, no more lamenting the few things he doesn’t do wonderfully. Just give him his props. And give the Wizards, after defeating Atlanta, 4-2, a second-round matchup with the Boston Celtics, the team they’ve long wanted to meet in the playoffs.
On Friday night, the Wizards advanced despite nearly blowing a 22-point lead and because of the stellar backcourt play of Wall and Bradley Beal. The two combined for 73 points, with Beal scoring 31 on just 17 shots . But even with Beal at his best, Wall was the story. To complete the finest playoff series of his career, Wall played his finest playoff game, finishing with 42 points, eight assists and four steals .
His fourth quarter defined the performance. His fourth quarter made this game stand out from a handful of other great playoff efforts. With the Wizards threatening to fall apart, Wall scowled at the notion of a collapse. In the fourth, he scored 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting. And he added a signature and very Wall flurry when his team needed him most.
It was 53 seconds of quintessential Wall brilliance. It started with 8:27 remaining in the game and ended with 7:34 left. When it was over, the Wizards had control of the game again.
The score was 93-90 when Hawks guard Dennis Schroder stole a Beal pass and raced down the court. He had a clear path for a layup, which would’ve cut the Washington lead to one. But there are no easy layups when Wall is chasing in transition. LeBron James is the NBA’s most accomplished chase-down shot blocker, but Wall has a nice résumé, too, including several in this series.
As Schroder tossed the ball into the air, Wall leapt and blocked it just before it hit the backboard. It was a clean block, and a play that looked so impressive because the two speedy players were moving as fast as they could. After Bojan Bogdanovic retrieved the blocked shot, he found Wall, racing the other way. He drove the lane, bumped into Atlanta forward Paul Millsap and made an off-balance layup to give the Wizards’ a five-point cushion. Then, following Atlanta guard Jose Calderon’s missed three-pointer, Wall drained a 20-foot pull-up jumper to put the Wizards ahead 97-90.
Fifty-three seconds earlier, a one-point game seemed certain. Now, the Wizards were up seven. The block inspired a 22-9 Washington run to close the game and the series.
“I knew he was going to get it,” Beal said of Wall’s block. “That’s why I stayed over in the corner on offense.”
Wall blocks shots like that so regularly that it’s hard for him to appreciate the athleticism it takes to come out of nowhere, jump and time it perfectly. One bit of hesitation, and it’s two points, and no one even ponders that a block could have occurred. But to Wall, it’s just what he does. He expects to get his fingers on the shot every time.
“Anytime somebody is in transition, my teammates do a good job defensively of setting guys up,” Wall said. “And then I got ’em.”
Asked if he’s ever been victim of a Wall chasedown in practice or pick-up games, Beal said, “He’ll never get me.” Wall laughed. Fortunately, they’ll never have to find out, at least not in public. This backcourt won’t be broken up anytime soon.
In the first half, the Wizards played flawless basketball. They played exactly how you’d expect a team to perform with a chance to end a series. When it’s time to turn off the lights, good teams don’t wave in the direction of the switch and hope for darkness. They shut it down with force. “Lights out” isn’t a wish. It’s a demand. A Washington team often accused of lacking killer instinct needed to go on the road and leave nothing to chance. For a half, they did. Then they held their breath until Wall said it was okay to exhale.
In the first half, they made 25 of 38 shots (65.8 percent), including 6 of 10 three-point attempts. Wall had 20 points and four steals by halftime, Beal 17 and Markieff Morris 13.
The Wizards’ defense was at its disruptive best, harassing the Hawks into 15 early turnovers. Eleven of those were steals, five of which came from Kelly Oubre Jr.
Atlanta’s offensive sloppiness fueled the Wizards, who had a 24-4 advantage in fast-break points at the intermission. The score was 65-46 at the half, and Washington’s lead would balloon to 22 early in the third quarter. The Hawks were reeling. The Wizards were eyeing the second round.
It only made the collapse that much more stressful. It only made Wall’s rescue that much greater.
“We’ve been in this situation before, but we probably didn’t have the confidence to close like we did late in the game,” said Wall, who averaged 29.5 points and 10.3 assists against Atlanta. “Now we do.”
Wall is always at the heart of the Wizards’ confidence. Late in the fourth quarter, Wall yelled “I told you!” repeatedly at Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and rapper Gucci Mane, who were sitting courtside.
Asked afterward about the exchange, Wall said: “I told Julio I was going to get 35 or more, and we were going to win. And I got 42. So it worked out perfectly.”
Calling your own shot to Jones, another of the most mesmerizing athletes in sports? Wall has reached a new level of stardom. And his playoff run has only begun to get interesting.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.