Maybe he just needed to get acclimated to this whole playoff climate. As good as John Wall looked in his first round against the Chicago Bulls, he's been missing in action for most of the conference semifinals—at least until a Game 5, 27-point explosion.
Prior to Tuesday night's turnaround, Wall hadn't scored more than 15 points in a postseason game against the Indiana Pacers. Through his first four chances, he combined to make just 16 of 51 field-goal attempts. In Games 3 and 4, he totaled 12 turnovers.
He added another five on Tuesday.
But the rest of his performance was much-improved. He went 11-for-20 from the floor and tallied five rebounds and five assists. Most importantly, he was aggressive without trying to do too much. He let the game come to him, taking advantage of open looks without forcing the action.
Perhaps most importantly, Wall led the charge to get the bigs involved. It was Marcin Gortat's night, and Wall orchestrated an attack that made the most of a man popularly known as the Polish Hammer. Gortat finished with playoff career-highs of 31 points and 16 rebounds.
How exactly did the big man get so many touches?
Credit Wall for keeping the ball moving. Four of Washington's starters had at least four assists. This is an offense that has struggled to execute in the half court. The ball too often sticks in Wall's hands as the rest of the offense waits for lanes to magically open up. That wasn't the case on Tuesday.
This is Wall's first time in the playoffs. It's also the postseason debut for head coach Randy Wittman.
It may have been a conversation between the two that helped set Wall right.
Wall recounted their conversation during the postgame press conference (via The Washington Post's Mike Wise):
[Wittman] came up to me and he told me, 'Listen, I just want you to be aggressive,' He said, 'If you have 20 turnovers, I don’t care. I want you to play the way the John Wall I know that helped us throughout this season.'"
I told him something that he probably never wanted me to say. I was like, 'I’m frustrated. I don’t know how to get out this slump. I don’t know what to do.' And he was like, 'I never want to hear you say that ever again, because I know how confident you are in yourself and I know how competitive you are.'
To hear that from your coach, from somebody who’s been here for four seasons and riding with me through the thick and thin of things and me having his back is pretty exciting. He texted me today and said, 'Just believe. Just believe in yourself, John Wall.' And I did.
Wall's 20 shots were the most he'd attempted all series long. His previous high was 14. There was clearly a difference in his confidence level—less hesitation on his jumpers and more decisive attempts to get to his spots on the floor.
He had 17 points in the third quarter alone, helping break the game open for good.
Perhaps Wittman's admonition made the difference.
Perhaps it will continue to.
The problem for Wall up until now has been his inability to cash in from the mid-range. That's typically where he does much of his damage, especially against defenses that effectively close off the paint to penetration.
In this series, Indiana has been daring Wall to take that jumper.
As USA Today's Adi Joseph put it, "The midrange jumper is the Pacers' bait. They want Wall to try to beat them from the perimeter, altering their approach and having fewer players crash the offensive boards in an effort to keep Wall from beating them on transition."
Per Joseph, Wall was at wit's end going into Game 5, saying, "It's very difficult and frustrating at times, but you just play the game and take what goes. What's frustrating is, my midrange jump shot, I haven't been able to knock it down. That's what I've been getting."
With a little added confidence and a do-or-die mentality, that changed for Wall in Game 5. He was hitting the midrange shots. He was even hitting three-pointers. Take a look at his shot chart.
That certainly counts as progress.
And it counts as a real problem for the Pacers. They seemed to have things under control not all that long ago. Wall looked equally inexperienced and inefficient. He looked like a 23-year-old who had never been to the playoffs before, shell-shocked and overwhelmed by one of the league's very best defensive units.
And now? Everything changed in the second half of Game 5. As Wise put it, "Wall became a step-on-the-gas floor leader again. He raced up court, early turnovers be damned. He took three-pointers without thinking in the flow of the offense, making three of six."
And that was after another rough first half. As Sporting News' DeAntae Prince wrote, "A test of that confidence came for Wall in the first half. He took seven shots outside of 15 feet and hit one of them, his only conversion coming on a straightaway look just beyond the free-throw line."
Wall wasn't responsible for everything that went right for the Wizards Tuesday night. Washington out-rebounded the Pacers by an astounding 62-to-23 margin. They were collectively more engaged and imposing their will on the defensive end.
And they were certainly more resolute, working double-time to expand their league throughout the game. The Wizards gave up a 19-point second-half lead in Game 4. They never bothered showing up in Game 3, putting up a franchise playoff record-low of just 63 points.
Just as Wall can't take all the credit for Game 5, nor can he be exclusively blamed for what came before it.
Going into Game 6, Wall's biggest contribution may be the tone he sets. The Wizards need some of his newfound fearlessness to rub off on them. They remain one game away from elimination and face a team that has more playoff experience, especially playing with one another.
"We know the pressure’s still on us," Wall said, according to The Washington Post's Michael Lee. "It’s one game and you’re out. I’ll be honest with you — me and my teammates are still humble even though we won the big game."
More concretely, he'll also need that jumper to keep falling.
The explosiveness of Washington's offense depends heavily on Wall. He averaged 19.3 points and 8.8 assists during the regular season. Though you'd expect those numbers to take a hit against the Pacers' vaunted defense, they can't take too much of a hit.
And Game 5 proved they don't have to.
With the Pacers crowding the paint, Wall will have his opportunities. Whether he cashes in on them is ultimately up to him and the friendliness of the rim.
Wall can still add plenty to his game. Good as he's been this year, there's little doubt he'll be even better the next time around. The fourth-year floor general still relies on his speed and athleticism, leaving something to be desired in terms of his perimeter game. That will come around, much as it has for the Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose.
If Tuesday night's results are any indication, though, Wall may be more ready than we think. It may have just taken him a few games to get there.