Here’s the thing about seven-game series: One night doesn’t necessarily carry over to the next.
What worked in Game 1 might be futile in Game 2. The would-be trend in Game 3 can disappear in Game 4.
Besides shifts in how the X’s and O’s blow, wildcard factors can arise. Like Wizards All-Star John Wall suffering an injury that sidelines him after the first game. Or Atlanta All-Star Paul Millsap coming down with flu-like smyptons that limited him in the third game.
It also doesn’t help matters that the opposition grows progressively tougher the further a team advances. The Wizards won four consecutive games in the opening round against Toronto. They now twice have failed to win back-to-back games in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Atlanta.
However, Washington once again was competitive without its speedy point guard, finding itself down by three points with a few seconds left and Paul Pierce going up for an uncontested 3-pointer. But there would be no encore of his heroics on Saturday as the Wizards lost, 106-101
The burden of playing without Wall more evident in Game 4. Washington committed 17 turnovers that led to 19 points and failed to apply the defensive pressure that was crucial in Game 3. There were breakdowns galore as Atlanta scored 65 points in the first half, 32 in the paint.
The Wizards never fully overcame the 10-point deficit they faced at intermission, getting to within one point early in the second half but no closer.
“We can’t give up 60 points in the first half, period,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said. “We weren’t mentally focused. We weren’t following our concepts. We have to come out with a better mindset.”
Beal’s mindset would be one to emulate. He gave his teammates a pep talk at the break and implored them to keep fighting. Then he invited them to jump on his back and he nearly carried the team to victory, scoring 19 points in the second half, 13 in the fourth quarter.
“I had to get the guys going,” he said after establishing a career playoff-high with 34 points. “I told them I’m not giving up. I came out and wanted to set the tone on defense and get some early points on offense, just be as aggressive as I can be and get the guys amped up.”
Beal in attacck-mode would be a good trend to establish. Without Wall – who hasn’t been ruled out for the series but seems far from returning – the Wizards need Beal to be the youthful leader alongside the wizened Pierce. It’s a lot to ask of a 21-year-old making his second appearance in the playoffs but Beal isn’t shrinking from the challenge.
Pierce won’t let him.
“What I saw from Brad is what I need to see from him every night,” said Pierce, who might’ve benefited from a hand in his face or someone closing out on his would-be, game-tying 3. “He needs to continue being aggressive, taking shots, getting to the bucket, getting to the line. He’s our main guy now. I can’t ask anything more of Brad.”
There’s a bright side if you choose to see it, just like the encouraging signs in Washington’s performance without its leader in Game 2. The Wizards arguably played their worse game in the series yet were an open 3-pointer away from a tie with a few seconds left.
Mental lapses did them in but they never quit.
“Physically and effort wise we were perfect,” coach Randy Wittman said. “… Our effort and courage was there. Our heart was there. We kept fighing and we like that.”
Making as many mistakes as Washington made – careless turnovers, poor defensive techniques, missing point-blank shots – will lead to failure more often than not against a 60-win team, especially when that team is desperate to avoid a 3-1 series deficit when it returns home. The Hawks were a closer proximity to what they exhibited all season-long, playing a brand of ball that’s mostly been absent in this series.
Again, that’s the beauty of best-of-four.
“Each game is different,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Each games takes a little bit of its own personality.”
The Wizards will have to recapture the personality they showed in Game 2 at Atlanta, their first with Wall on the sideline.
“We won one game without John,” Beal said. “We can do it again. It doesn’t matter what floor we play on. We have to have guys willing to lock in whether John is playing or not.”
The second half Monday night was a good start .. if it carries over.