WASHINGTON D.C. — Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right fit. It’s being in the right place, at exactly the right time, and, for whatever reason, things just happen to work out perfectly.
For Brandon Jennings and Jason Smith of the Washington Wizards, a disjointed and uneven Game 2 in their Eastern Conference playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks gave them an opportunity to shine, as they helped the Wizards to a 109-101 win and 2-0 lead in the series.
To be clear, the Wizards still ride on the spells conjured by John Wall and Bradley Beal, who combined for 63 points and again torched Atlanta’s backcourt. But with starting forward Markieff Morris and Otto Porter in foul trouble all night, and reserve center Ian Mahinmi still sidelined by a calf strain, Wizards coach Scott Brooks was forced into some different personnel groupings.
Jason Smith played 28 minutes off the bench and finished with eight points and eight rebounds. But the most memorable moments from a reserve probably came from Jennings, who had an electric start to the fourth quarter and finished with 10 points and two assists in 16 minutes.
“[Jennings] came in, he gave us energy and he made some shots,” said Brooks. “That’s how he plays: he plays with a chip on his shoulder, he plays with an edge.”
One year ago at this time, as the playoffs were cranking up, Jennings was at home in Los Angeles, watching the NBA on TNT like everyone else. After rupturing an Achilles midway through the 2015-16 season, Jennings returned to action for the Detroit Pistons during 2016-17, before being traded at the deadline to an Orlando team looking to make a playoff push. (“It was just a roller coaster year,” Jennings recalled.) But the Magic couldn’t make any magic, and they missed the postseason, leaving Jennings on the outside looking in from Los Angeles.
One of Jennings’ teammates on last year’s Orlando team? Smith, a post player who was on his third team in as many seasons. But Smith seemed to finally find a home last summer, when he signed a three-year deal with Washington. Jennings signed a one-year deal with the Knicks, but came to D.C. in February to provide depth after his contract was bought out.
Wednesday night, with the Hawks holding a 78-76 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, Jennings and Smith paid big-time dividends. It started with Jennings, who got hot and tossed in a series of step-back jumpers, energizing the crowd. For a player who has become more of a playmaker than the scoring point guard he was earlier in his career in Milwaukee, it was something of a return to form.
“Since he’s been here,” said Wall, “I know he’s a guy that is going to pick up defensively full court. He’s trying to find his teammates at all times. I always tell him at certain times you have to be aggressive and look for your shot. It was good to see him finally make some shots.”
“It’s funny because when I first came into the league, I was a scorer,” Jennings said with a laugh, “and everybody was complaining about me scoring, and now everybody’s talking about me not shooting. I’m just trying to find a balance.”
Jennings evened out his scoring run by driving into the paint, drawing the defense, and flipping a pass to a cutting Smith, who hammered home a two-handed dunk to tie the game at 84 with just under eight minutes left to play. From there, the Wizards outscored the Hawks 25-17 the rest of the way to get the win.
For Jennings, this is his first trip to the playoffs since his Bucks were knocked out by Miami in the 2013 first round; Smith’s last visit was in 2011 as a member of the New Orleans Hornets. For both players, playing key roles with a Wizards team that seems poised for postseason success is an opportunity they relish.
“I’m humbled,” Jennings says. “I feel like I’ve been in the league forever. I’m only 27, but guys look at me like I’m an old man. Just to be in this situation, playing in the playoffs, after being in New York, to come here and make an impact in the playoffs, this is awesome.”
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