With John Wall sidelined in a dark suit with matching soft cast Tuesday night, the Washington Wizards lost their mojo and first playoff game this season. An excellent chance to return home with a 2-0 series lead died a slow death in the Atlanta Hawks’ 106-90 victory.
Whether the Hawks played better because it was inevitable, because they were desperate or because Wall was absent, they reminded us how they won 60 games to become the East’s No.1 seed. Atlanta flashed the San Antonian ways that second-year coach Mike Budenholzer instilled after spending 19 years under coach Gregg Popovich.
The Hawks were labeled “Spurs of the East” for good reason and they showed why with unselfish play and 30 assistss on 37 field goals.
“If we keep moving the ball, keep attacking and keep finding the open man,” Budenholzer told reporters after the game, “good things will happen.”
On a team with four All-Stars and no superstars, the coach might be the brightest luminary. The task in Game 2 was easier without worrying about Wall pushing on offense and pestering on defense, but Budenholzer got his team to play the beautiful style that has become a San Antonio trademark.
The Wizards also have displayed stretches of alluring basketball in the playoffs, but they’ve accomplished it one of the league’s top point guards. Wall’s breathtaking speed and breakneck forays on the rim are unique, impossible to duplicate and difficult to replicate.
His backup, Ramon Sessions, had an outstanding outing. He scored 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting with four assists and just two turnovers in 40 minutes of action. With Sessions running the point, Washington stayed close throughout, trailing by three points with 8:17 remaining in the game.
But the Hawks’ aesthetically pleasing play went up a notch the rest of the way, as they shot 53 percent from the floor and recorded six assists on eight field goals. Atlanta closed the contest with a 22-9 run.
“We just have to keep believing in our system and our shots,” Hawks center Al Horford told reporters after the game. “We’ve been doing it all year. Now in the playoffs, the intensity goes up. A lot of things go into it that have gotten us this far. We have to stay confident, keep shooting the ball and hopefully we have a breakout game.”
For all of its shooting, spacing and success this season, Atlanta struggled to eliminate the Nets in the previous round, losing Games 3 and 4 at Brooklyn. Like the Raptors before them, the Hawks lack the “it” factor that Wizards forward Paul Pierce talked about.
Teams that rely so heavily on 3-point shooting aren’t particularly fearsome because they’re always one cold night away from dropping a game. The Hawks, who were seventh this season in 3-point attempts per game (26.6) and second in 3-point percentage (.380), were anything but blazing-hot Tuesday. They shot 35 percent from behind the arc (compared to the Wizards’ 55 percent).
If staying in Game 2 wasn’t encouraging enough, the Wizards can look west for hope and inspiration. Memphis on Tuesday welcomed back injured point guard Mike Conley and evened its series against the bombs-away Warriors. Golden State, which shot 40 percent on 3-pointers during the season, connected on just 23 percent in Game 2 against the Grizzlies.
Wall’s return would be the Wizards’ best remedy for any confidence that was shook. But if his injured left hand continues to resemble Fred Flintstone’s after a painful blunder, Washington needs to steal page from Atlanta and find a way to without an MVP-caliber talent.
“We just have to readjust,” Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal told reporters after Game 2. “First we have to watch film on how they played and prepare for if John doesn’t play. We have to step up individually and as a team and do better on both ends of the floor.
“This team (Atlanta) is beatable,” he said. “We feel like we’re the better team. We just have to go out and do what we’re supposed to do.”
They’re a better team, playing a different style, than they showed during the regular season. Through their first five playoffs games, the Wizards appeared at least equal to any team in the East, including the top seed.
The challenge will be handling Atlanta when the Hawks play at their Spursian best. Doing so without Wall forces the Wizards to channel their inner San Antonio.
That’s never a bad idea, anyway. But it’s absolutely necessary if Wall can’t go.