Hope dimmed for the Wizards after Indiana swept Games 3 and 4 at Verizon Center, putting Washington on the brink of elimination.
But then there was light (and another home game tonight).
A bulb came on, especially for John Wall and Marcin Gortat, who scored 31 and 27 points, respectively. The Wizards looked as comfortable as if Bankers Life Fieldhouse was their couch and Game 5 was a rigged NBA PlayStation.
When we had last seen Wall, he was declining to take a wide-open 3-pointer that could’ve tied Game 4 with 50 seconds left on Sunday. At the outset on Tuesday, he didn’t offer convincing evidence of being ready for the moment; he had three assists and three turnovers at the half.
When we had last seen Gortat, he was glued to the bench for the final 14:24 Sunday as Washington blew a 19-point lead. He finished with a measly two points and three rebounds. But his dominant performance to begin Game 5 – 11 points and six rebounds in the first quarter – set the tone for Wall and other teammates the rest of the evening.
The third quarter in this series had been a gaping sinkhole, with the Wizards being outscored by a combined 42 points through the first four games. Coach Randy Wittman joked that his team would stay on the floor during halftime to avoid whatever bug was infecting the locker room.
Wittman refused to blame the woes on his inexperienced backcourt of 23-year-old Wall and 20-year-old Bradley Beal, postseason neophytes. That’s admirable of Wittman, who has infused the team with a tough-minded, no-nonsense approach.
But it’s only natural when young players are unsteady and unsure in taking the baby steps that propel their playoff journeys. And we’re really only talking about Wall and Beal. The starting frontcourt of Gortat, Nene and Trevor Ariza each played at least 40 postseason game before arriving in D.C. So did key reserves Andre Miller and Drew Gooden.
No one has ever mistaken Gortat as a franchise player, but his on-court connection with Wall has been instrumental to the Wizards’ success. The “Polish Hammer” not only nailed a monster game – 13-of-15 shooting and 16 rebounds – he didn’t let Wall feel alone in carrying the team.
“John was different today,” Gortat said afterward. “He didn’t want to talk to anybody or interact with anybody. He didn’t rap or laugh before the game. I just told him that whether he plays good or bad, I’m with him. We can’t put pressure on him where every time the team loses he’s to blame. I understand he’s the leader and the head of the snake, but it’s not all his fault.”
The carefree approach that Gortat exhibited from the start permeated Wall in the second half. The game came easy as he hit 6-of-8 shots, including 3-of-4 three-pointers. He finished with a 1:1 turnover-to-assist ratio but Wittman earlier had instructed him to ignore those numbers.
“He told me during shootaround that he didn’t care if I had 20 turnovers, he just wanted me to be aggressive,” Wall said.
The quicksilver point guard had to ease off the gas initially, as his dribble couldn’t keep pace with his mind or body. But once Wall got in the flow with Gortat, the Wizards played some absolutley beautiful basketball. They shot 50 percent from the field, had 21 assists on their 41 field goals and compiled a mind-boggling advantage, 62-23, on the boards.
It’s hard to determine how much was Washington efficiency versus Indiana lethargy. However, the Wizards appear to be the superior team through five games, notwithstanding the 3-2 deficit.
Losing a pair at home was disheartening and representative of the inevitable adversity a would-be contender must overcome. sooner or later. The Wizards can continue that process tonight if they again find pleasure amid pressure.
“At some point, it was just fun to be in the game,” Gortat said. “Everything was working and I felt immortal. I had a lot of energy and it was fun to play today. I will say I was in a zone.”
Few things are less certain than how one NBA playoff game carries over to the next. At this point, the Wizards know Indiana’s strengths and weaknesses perhaps better than their own. But if Washington plays its game and Indiana plays it game, expect to watch another one at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
That’s where the bulb came on for the Wizards, illuminating their capability to turn off the lights Sunday.