ATLANTA — The gloomy faces on the Washington Wizards’ sideline told the story. John Wall sat closest to the coaching staff, a red towel draped his shoulders — there would be no mistaking it for a cape Saturday night, when Wall’s individual moments of brilliance went to waste.
The fourth quarter hadn’t even started, but the expressions of the two stars revealed plenty of the 116-98 loss that curbed the Wizards’ lead in this best-of-seven first-round series to 2-1. The Hawks controlled the game from tip-off, exploiting Washington’s leaky defense for 38 points in the first quarter and opening a 25-point lead before halftime.
“They jumped on us in that first period. Their sense of urgency was very high,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said. “I wouldn’t say that we came out relaxed. We came out missing shots, but we let that affect our defense. That’s happened before with us during the season, and it’s not pretty.”
Although the Wizards trimmed the lead to 12 in the fourth quarter, Wall spent much of the game carrying the burdens by himself. Atlanta’s Paul Millsap had 29 points and 14 rebounds and had a partner in point guard Dennis Schroder, who dazzled for 27 points and nine assists.
Wall, however, had to perform alone. He matched Millsap with 29 points, making 10 of 12 shots from the field. Beal, who missed 14 of 20 shots, was the only other Wizards starter in double figures with 12 points. The Wizards’ offense sputtered into 41.6 percent shooting and collected just 16 assists.
“He has 29. Basically, he’s putting the team on his back. That’s what he do,” Wizards forward Markieff Morris said. “We make shots, he’d finish with 30 and 15 [assists] easy.”
Even as the Hawks’ lead ballooned, Wall kept working. He sneered after speeding coast to coast, ditching Schroder with an around-the-back dribble then dunking on Kent Bazemore. He stared down the Hawks’ bench once he danced to the corner and lofted a buzzer-beating three-pointer. He smack-talked the courtside fans after finishing at the rim while being fouled. Despite his efforts in the first half, the Wizards went into intermission trailing by 18 with Wall scoring 21 of their 46 points.
In the first two games of the series, Beal had shot just 43.7 percent from the field but both times had rediscovered his touch in the fourth quarter. On Saturday, however, Beal started the game 3 for 11 and closed with only three more makes — some of his errant looks even surprised his backcourt mate.
“It’s probably the most I’ve seen him air ball in a game,” Wall said. “He’ll figure it out.”
Beal missed all six of his attempts from the three-point line.
“I’ve been in that situation before when Brad was playing well and I was missing shots,” Wall said. “Those are good shots that he’s been getting all season.
“I bet you tomorrow before practice he’s going to get extra shots up, and after practice, to try and find a rhythm,” Wall said, “but we’re fine. I think he’ll be fine. We have the lead 2-1. We just got to take care of what we need to do Monday. I think he’ll get out of his shooting slump.”
As a group, the Wizards could use a breakthrough from the three-point arc.
Through the first two games, Washington made 30 percent from deep. It got worse in Game 3 as the Wizards made just 7 of 29 three-point attempts (24.1 percent). Atlanta, meanwhile, broke open the first quarter by unlocking its three-point game.
At the start, the Hawks played simple, unselfish basketball and found open shooters beyond the arc. Just as three minutes expired in the opening quarter, Dwight Howard sent a pass to Tim Hardaway Jr., who was waiting beyond the arc. This shot — Atlanta’s third open three-pointer off an assist — opened the first double-digit lead.
While the Hawks played effortless inside-outside basketball in the first quarter, scoring 18 points in the paint and outfiring the Wizards by plus-12 from beyond the arc, Washington’s offense was reduced to perimeter looks and ill-advised decisions.
Earlier in the series, the Hawks had strategized to limit Wall and Beal and make other Wizards the primary scorers — a plan that irked Morris. They stuck to that plan in Game 3, and Morris missed his first six attempts. By the midway point of the second quarter, Morris finally drained a three-pointer — a shot he can certainly make but not the most reliable option for the Wizards — and led all players with 12 first-half shot attempts but made just three from the field. Morris finished with nine points (4 for 14) and six rebounds.
Late in the fourth quarter, the starters had returned to their seats on the sideline, their faces reflecting a game that was never really a contest.
“They did what they were supposed to do,” Wall said. “We took care of home court. They came home, and we knew it was going to be amazing for them to play in front of their great crowd. They did what they were supposed to — come in and get Game 3. Our job is try to put the pressure on them and try to win Game 4.”