CHICAGO — John Wall pulled up for a jumper from his favorite spot on the floor, just beyond the right elbow, and the shot was on target — if he had taken it, oh, about three feet back. The ball soared well over the rim and hit the base of the backboard, leaving the Chicago Bulls so stunned that only Marcin Gortat was ready to grab the rebound and convert the putback that secured the Washington Wizards’ 102-93 victory in Game 1 of their first-round, best-of-seven series.
Asked later if he had really taken a shot or executed a surprise pass, Wall laughed and said: “That was an air ball. That was a shot I tried to make.”
If the quality of a performance is based strictly on shots made, then Wall and Bradley Beal both had forgettable postseason debuts against the Bulls. But if it’s measured by their ability to block out those errant jumpers to remain competitive on the defensive end, or by serving as decoys to create open looks for teammates, then Wall and Beal have nothing to be ashamed about in their first dalliance with playoff basketball.
Wall and Beal combined to shoot just 7 for 25 from the field as Chicago installed an effective game plan meant to neutralize the young back-court duo that has carried the Wizards back into the postseason for the first time in six years. The poor shooting efforts of the Wizards’ two leading scorers were more tolerable because the rest of the team connected on 29 of 49 field goals and the Wizards stole home-court advantage against the heavily favored fourth seed.
“It is a lot of fuss about being young, but you got to remember, these guys are very mature for their ages and playing the whole season with them being the focus of our team, they grow and they learn things and they go through things and they understand what they have to do,” Trevor Ariza said. Washington claimed its first opening win in a seven-game series since 1979. “John and Brad are both smart individuals. They know how to win a game, that we’re a team and that’s how we play.”
The Wizards will need improved offensive outings from Wall and Beal — or at least one of them — if they hope to defeat the Bulls in this series. But Beal said that shouldn’t require much of a change in how they approach Game 2 on Tuesday at United Center.
“We know those are shots we normally make,” Beal said after missing 8 of 11 shot attempts and scoring 13 points. “We can easily use the excuse that, ‘Oh, it was first-game jitters.’ And get it out of the way. Hopefully, next game we can come out and knock ’em down and continue to take the same shots we’ve been taking.”
Wall was overcome with excitement in the moments leading up to the game but had no choice but to settle down when the opening tip landed in his hands. Beal said he needed only a few sprints up and down the floor before he felt like he was playing just another game. That calm was evident throughout the game, as Wall committed just three turnovers, Beal had none and both made huge plays to help the Wizards recover from a 13-point second half deficit.
“I didn’t have any problem with them,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Wall and Beal. “They didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, and you’re going to have games like that. That has nothing to do with the magnitude of it being the first playoff game. We just got to make sure we continue to do the same things. I don’t worry about makes and misses as long as they’re the right shots.”
Wall shot just 4 for 14 but tilted momentum back in Washington’s favor when he intercepted an exchange between Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy and raced up the court for a dunk that sparked a 19-7 run to bring the Wizards within one point in the third quarter.
Beal recorded a team-high seven assists and took turns with Wall in limiting Bulls’ leading scorer D.J. Augustin to just 1-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter. With the Wizards trailing late, 87-86, Beal tracked down Augustin from behind to slap a layup attempt off the backboard. They also combined to make four free throws in the final 25 seconds.
“I don’t understand why you guys say [Wall and Beal] struggled. They weren’t struggling,” said Nene, who scored a game-high 24 points and handed out three assists in the fourth quarter. “I understand when you play your first playoffs and they have a big responsibility. But they made a lot of tough shots at the end of the game that maintain us the advantage.
“The game was in the post, but [Tuesday in Game 2], it could be different. I’m very positive they will step it up because they have the talent and they have the personality, and I know they will give their best.”
Wall admitted that the lessons learned during the regular season helped him know how to handle the Bulls’ attempt to fluster him by trapping and blitzing.
“Most of the time, when you cut the head of the snake off, you can control the team and control the game, but I just tried to keep these guys involved and keep playing the defense that I know we needed to win the game,” said Wall, who had six assists and two steals. “If my shot’s not falling, I’m not going to take 20 shots and put my team in a bind. Earlier in the season, you’d have guys like me or Brad or somebody that would try to go one-on-one too much and hurt our team. Even though our shots wasn’t falling, we didn’t force the issue and kept letting the guys that was hot make the plays for us.”
Even when that wasn’t always the intent.