In the context of the NBA playoffs, one quality that separates great from merely good is stylistic dynamism—the ability to win whether the state of play is pretty or putrid.
John Wall and the Washington Wizards found that out the hard way Wednesday night, falling to the Indiana Pacers 86-82 in a series-tying Game 2 slugfest that summoned specters of 1990s bloodbaths past.
But on a night when the only sparkling stat line belonged to the embattled Roy Hibbert, Wall’s performance—just six points on 2-of-13 shooting (to go along with eight assists)—cast into concerning light just how tightly Washington’s fortunes are strapped to his shoulders.
Particularly in games like this, where every possession is precious and ill-advised threes launched early in the shot clock—something Wall did twice down the stretch—bear outsized consequences.
Not the best finish for John Wall. 2 bad 3s & a strip. #wizards trail 84-79 with 21.4 secs left. Road streak almost over at 4— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) May 8, 2014
Speaking to reporters after the game, Wall acknowledged as much.
"Some nights you're going to miss shots," Wall said. "We still gave ourselves a chance to win the game, but I didn't play great. I felt like I lost the game for my team. But you still gave yourself a chance to win the game, even though [the Pacers] made the adjustments."
All is far from lost, of course. Washington still holds home-court advantage in the best-of-seven series, with a pair of games at the Verizon Center on the weekend docket.
At the same time, without Wall at or near his best, the Wizards must rely on contingency plans that aren’t exactly sustainable (or even reliable): Bradley Beal heroics, role-player fireworks and the hope that Indiana’s fragile ego suffers another core meltdown.
Washington was lucky enough to get one of those Monday night, when the 20-year-old Beal bested the Pacers to the tune of 25 points in the Wizards’ 102-96 Game 1 win—a game in which Wall tallied 13 points on 4-of-14 shooting.
Truth be told, Wall’s struggles are at least one playoff series in the making: In Washington’s five-game Round 1 win over the Chicago Bulls, he managed just a 36 percent clip from the field (including 27 percent from distance) en route to averages of 18.8 points and 6.8 assists per game.
Against a team as devoid of offensive firepower as Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls, that might well cut the mustard.
Indy, meanwhile—and for all its endlessly publicized struggles—have both the defensive pedigree and enough offensive firepower to make an inexperienced team like the Wizards pay for taking pressure off the pedal.
Wednesday was, for Wall, a lesson in perspective. As Wall acknowledged in a recent piece by the Washington Post’s Michael Lee, even the occasional bad showing oughtn’t be enough to compromise his confidence:
I’m still a humble, hungry kid from Raleigh, North Carolina. The biggest thing is my teammates and these guys made it a lot easier and comfortable for me because I wanted that pressure but they didn’t want me to do it on my own. Earlier in the season, I wanted to prove myself so much that I would take too many shots and force the issue a lot and after our team meeting, these guys told me just be the leader. When I’m having a bad night, those guys still believe in me.
Thanks to Beal, the Wizards were able to survive one of those off nights—breakout Game 1, in which it was easy to read the early stirrings of a superstar in waiting.
And he might well be that. But if Beal is to be the focus of Paul George—one of the league’s premier wing defenders—then it falls to Wall to spearhead the attack that worked so well for the Wizards all year: Break down the defense with his uncanny speed, kick to the corners, profit.
Lest you think positing Wall as Washington’s most critical cog amounts to mere selection bias, consider this tidbit of information from Bleacher Report’s Michael Pina, who previewed the fourth-year guard’s playoff debut back in April:
According to SportVU, Wall’s 95.0 touches per game were second to only Charlotte Bobcats point guard Kemba Walker, and his 7.8 minutes of possession led everyone. He’s crucial, and the Wizards have asked so much of Wall all season long. In the postseason, they’ll need all that and a little more.
Pina also cites Wall’s role as Washington’s chief instigator in transition, where, after converting 13 Pacer turnovers into 18 points in Game 1, the Wizards scored just one point off of eight Indy cough-ups.
Indiana’s offense finished the regular season ranked 22nd in overall offensive efficiency, this after charting the second-worst post-All-Star ORtg in the league, per NBA.com (subscription required).
Translation: Unless Frank Vogel marshals his troops for a truly transcendent, sustained defensive stand, Washington will likely find itself in a consistent position to win.
When every possession is a siege, making the most of your rations—in this case, minutes and seconds, sets and shots—becomes essential to survival.
More than any other Wizard, Wall’s playmaking and decision-brokering abilities will determine whether Washington can continue its upstart march or if the troops in the other trenches—a team that’s fought on this slow, bloody front before—can somehow seize on the fatal mistakes.