ATLANTA — John Wall had that look in his eye all day, long before he led his Washington Wizards onto the floor at Philips Arena for a close-out game against the Atlanta Hawks.
Bradley Beal recognized it early, so he knew exactly what was coming Friday night. Wall to Wall at his kinetic best against a Hawks team that would be hard-pressed to slow the Wizards down with their dynamic backcourt duo locked in and ready to move on from this series and into an Eastern Conference semifinal showdown with a Boston Celtics team they’ve been beefing with all season.
Wall and Beal delivered, combing for a staggering 73 points (on just 42 shots and just seven from beyond the 3-point line) in a 115-99 Game 6 thumping of the Hawks to take this series 4-2. They combined to score 332 of the Wizards’ 640 points in the series, a whopping 52 percent of the team’s offensive output.
And it started from the opening tip of Game 1 with Wall, the unquestioned leader of this bunch.
“He brings it each and every day, by example,” Beal sad. “Every time we step on the floor he’s the voice. Right before we run out to the floor, he’s the voice. So we’re all locked in to what he says. He’s been there before I’ve been there before. But he’s the floor general. And we’re all locked in and listening and he controls the pace of the team and is directing it. So when he has that look in his eye, and he had it today … he had one at shootaround, you can just tell when he’s locked in and ready to go, he’s pushing the pace and setting the tone on offense and defense. We feed off that. And each and every game he’s learned from that and gotten better at that he continues to show why he’s one of the best point guards in the league.”
There should be no doubt after this season, Wall’s finest as a pro. And certainly, not after the finale against the Hawks, when he finished with a playoff career-high 42 points to go along with his eight assists, four steals and two blocks. He topped the 20-point mark in all six games and scored 30 or more three times. Beal added 31 points on 11-of-17 shooting, his fourth career 30-point playoff game, all four against the Hawks.
While they refused to categorize it as a rivalry, despite plenty of choppiness on both side that would qualify it as such, Wall said this was simply payback for the Hawks eliminating them from the postseason on their home floor two years ago.
“Totally,” Wall said when asked if there was a little something special about finishing off the Hawks. “It’s the same thing they did to us a couple years ago. We had a chance to win Game 5 here and we lost it and then in Game 6 they beat us at home and all we could do was have sad faces, so we came here with that determination and focus that we wanted to do the same thing those guys did to us two years ago and me and Brad led the way, we locked in and our teammates understood what we had at task and we didn’t want [to play a] Game 7.”
They turned the Hawks over early and often, to the tune of 20 points by halftime, and led by as many as 22 points. And when the Hawks rallied late, cutting the deficit to as few as three points with just over five minutes to play, it was Wall who chased them away with a chase down block on Dennis Schroder on one end and a pull-up 18-footer on the other end to stretch the lead back to out.
They finished the game on a 22-9 run with Wall and Beal taking turns whacking the Hawks into submission, but perhaps no sequence more critical than Wall’s chase-down block.
“It’s really not fair, for a point guard to be able to do what he does,” said first-year Wizards coach Scott Brooks. “There’s only one other player in the league who does that, and we all know who that is (… LeBron James). He (Wall) does it every game. That’s the sign of a champion. You chase down plays. You stay in plays. And tonight he had to play an extra three or four minutes because Brad got in foul trouble. I had to make sure one of those guys is in the game. And I took him out for a couple of minutes. But he gave us everything he had. And that’s what you do to win a playoff series, especially a close-out game. It’s play to exhaustion. You have to just give everything you have and then worry about the next game the next day.”
They’ll get just that, a day to worry about Boston before taking the floor Sunday. And the backcourt matchup against the Celtics will be a little different with an All-Star like Isaiah Thomas and a defensive menace in Avery Bradley ready to do battle.
The Wizards insist they’ve learned a lot about themselves throughout the course of this season and this first-round series. They’re no longer the team that started the season 6-12 and in search of an identity with a new coaching staff in place.
They’re comfortable with Wall and Beal at the helm and a veteran squad capable of dealing with whatever challenges come their way.
“The first thing we learned is we can win on the road,” Beal said. “We’ve shown that we can fight through adversity. We were up 22 points and they ended it up cutting it back down to three. We ended up closing it out, but just being able to withstand their run and coming together and getting the win on the road, that’s the biggest thing. Keeping our focus .. we’ve won in Boston before, so it’s going to be a challenge. But I think we’re up for it.”
If Wall can keep his energy up and maintain his focus, there’s no telling where these Wizard can go. They won a division title for the first time since 1979 and have made it known that they feel like they are conference final material.
Wall’s confidence is sky-high and he’s got everyone else following his lead.
“The thing about John is he’s been tremendous,” Brooks said. “The easy thing t look at is what he does on the court. But his leadership has really been instrumental to our growth this season. Even in a game like this, we had a chance to just go, ‘Okay, we’ll just go to Game 7. This is going to be our rough night after blowing that lead.’ But I’ll tell you what, John and all of our guys stepped up.
“I keep saying it, he’s a heck of a player. He’s not just one of the best point guards, he’s one of the best players in the league. He’s carried us with his leadership as a player. We have a lot of good players who help us win games, but his leadership and Brad’s leadership has been great for our young players. In this league, I couldn’t ask for two better guys to lead our team.”
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