ATLANTA — Words without actions to back them up are of no use to John Wall.
That’s why the Washington Wizards’ All-Star point guard is doing his best to enjoy the competitive banter between his team and the Atlanta Hawks in their first-round playoff series, but not go overboard in a war of the words.
It doesn’t matter if it’s his personal back and forth with Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder or the verbal fire lobbed back and forth by Hawks All-Star forward Paul Millsap and Wizards counterpart Markieff Morris, Wall is making sure his team keeps it all in perspective with a 2-1 series lead and critical Game 4 on tap for Monday night at Philips Arena.
“It’s a lot of guys in this series who haven’t been in this position before,” Wall said. “This is what good teams deal with all the time, the national exposure, those two teams at that one time with the whole world watching. And you just have to keep playing. Everybody is going to do and say things to try and bait you at a time like this and you have to resist that urge to make it about that, to make it a one-on-one matchup. You have to play to the edge but not fall over the edge and turn this into something it’s not.”
Wall and Schroder have been in that spotlight since the start of the series, their mutual agitation society meeting carrying over from dust ups during previous games during the regular season and past seasons.
But Wall knows the danger involved with trying to turn the gamesmanship within the game into something more significant than what it really should be in this setting.
“Everybody keeps saying me and Schroder are going back and forth but it’s not some one-on-one battle,” Wall said after the Wizards’ practice Sunday at Georgia Tech. “It’s not me against anybody. I’m doing whatever I can to help my team win, and that’s scoring, getting guys involved and playing defense. Last game we didn’t do that as a whole, starting with me, and that’s why we lost.”
Well, that combined with a monstrous start by the Hawks, who were clearly energized by the desperation of their situation and a home crowd eager to throw some fuel on the home team’s fire.
The Hawks responded appropriately for a team desperate to avoid a 3-0 series deficit, which is exactly what Wizards coach Scott Brooks expected. The chatter, Brooks said, was also expected.
"You have to play with an edge. And we’re really good when we do play with an edge. But you also have to play with that edge. You can’t let that edge take over the game."
“It’s the playoffs, we shouldn’t like each other,” he said. “We want to win and they want to win … it’s not a friendly contest. It’s the playoffs. You’re supposed to have intensity and I think you’ve seen that in all three games.”
We’ve also seen players from both sides cross the line. Millsap argued the Wizards were “playing MMA” while the Hawks were playing basketball after a rugged outing in Game 1. Morris called him a “crybaby” after Millsap thoroughly outplayed him in Game 3.
More battle lines have been drawn for the remainder of the series, with both teams seemingly on edge now more than ever.
“You have to play with an edge,” Brooks said. “And we’re really good when we do play with an edge. But you also have to play with that edge. You can’t let that edge take over the game. And at times I thought they were talking to us, but you know, they’re up 25 points, they should be talking to us. We had nothing to say at that point. They played well. But we have to be able to control that and do a better job with it next game.”
That includes getting off to a much better start, they were in a 19-4 hole before breaking a sweat at the start of Game 3, and locking in from the start defensively in what they know will be a hostile environment at Philips Arena.
“We just let them have so many opportunities,” Brooks said. “They played with desperation and a some urgency and we knew that going in. And they should, they’re down 2-0 on their home floor. And that’s a part of being in the playoffs. You have to be able to manage the ups and downs of every game, the emotions. And we have to come back and play a better game than we did in Game 3 to give ourselves a chance to win.”
So if that means ignoring the foolishness that is sure to ensue, refusing to take the bait or respond to any words or actions deemed inappropriate, so be it.
“It’s really just trash talk, all a part of the game,” said Wizards swingman Bradley Beal, before admitting that the bad blood between these two teams runs deeper than usual. “But at this point, yes, especially with them being the team in front of us right now and especially because they are the last team to knock us out [of the playoffs], we’re still a little bitter about that, even though it was two years ago. I still remember it like it was yesterday.
“But whatever your stand is, you back it up and let your game do the talking for you. Because at the end of the day we’re not going to make it that type of series. We’re not going to get our heads caught in that. We’re going to let our game do the talking for us.”
Wall has the utmost confidence in his guys, insisting that they’ve yet to play their best game in this series.
“We still haven’t knocked down a lot of 3-pointers and stuff like that,” he said. “We were great defensively the first two games and then the last game we kind of reverted back to what we did when we were a 2-8 team and that’s not communicating. We’ll clean that up and give ourselves a chance to handle the business in these next two games. It’s as simple as that.”
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