WASHINGTON D.C.— Atlanta Hawks versus Washington Wizards in round one of the Eastern Conference playoffs? Perhaps we should rename this series The Fast and the Furious.
The fast? That was clearly Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, who finished with a game-high 32 points and 14 assists in leading the Wiz to a 114-107 win.
The furious? That would be Hawks forward Paul Millsap, who wasn’t thrilled with the physicality shown by the Wizards. “We were playing basketball,” Millsap said after the game. “They were playing MMA.”
But if we’ve learned anything from countless big screen visits from Dom Toretto and his crew, it’s that nothing beats speed. And after a rough first half, Wall found a gear in the third quarter that the Hawks just couldn’t match. The Hawks had no answer for Wall’s speed, as he scored 15 points and dished four assists in just under 11 minutes.
When Wall is in that groove, he’s basically a human fast break, pushing the tempo and playing downhill at a precipitous angle. If Game 1 had been a video game, you’d wonder if Wall had entered a cheat code for unlimited turbo.
Wall’s one-man takeover began midway through the third, when he raced past two Hawks defenders for a layup to put Washington up 61-55.
On Washington’s next possession, Wall crossed over Kent Bazemore and got to the rim where he finished with a reserve layup. After a Hawks turnover, Wall weaved the length of the court between defenders and dished to Markieff Morris, who finished his playoff debut with 21 points and seven rebounds, for a big dunk.
One play later, Wall doubled-down with an alley-oop to Morris. Moments later, Wall drained a three from the top of the key. Wall followed that up by getting a bucket and drawing a foul on Hawks guard Dennis Schröder, leading to a thunderous “M-V-P” chant from the crowd.
“I take over the game in different ways,” Wall said. “I think that’s what makes me a great player. Early on, if I’m not scoring I still have to be aggressive on both ends of the floor. I might not get the shot, but my teammates need me to be aggressive to get those guys open shots. And when I play with the intensity I did tonight defensively, it means a lot, and gets everybody else locked in.”
It was a blockbuster performance from Wall, and if his importance to the Wizards wasn’t already clear, it was brought into perfect focus today. Wall’s 32 points were a career playoff-high, and the Wizards are now 37-14 this season when Wall posts a double-double.
“Not only is [Wall] one of the best players at his position, he’s one of the best players in the game,” said Scott Brooks. “I see that every day and I’m happy for him.”
The guy who wasn’t so happy was Millsap, an All-Star who finished with 19 points on just eight field goal attempts.
Millsap and Morris tangled a few times, including a vigorous discussion as the teams left the court at halftime, with the Hawks leading 48-45.
Millsap was also the recipient of a few wayward limbs when both teams were scrambling for loose balls. The Hawks shot 39 free throws for the game compared to Washington’s 17. But the Hawks seemed to struggle to consistently match Washington’s intensity.
“They were physical,” Millsap said. “When the game’s like that you’ve just got to match their physicality. But again, we’ve got to go get some moves and bring them back to the court.”
“I think at times our aggressiveness is where it needs to be,” said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. “I think it needs to go to another level for the entirety of the game.”
Atlanta’s own intensity notwithstanding, to alter the fate of the furious, the Hawks will have to devise a way to at least slow down Wall. In Game 1 the Hawks not only couldn’t stop him, they couldn’t even seem to contain him. For Atlanta to have a chance going forward, they’ll need to do something different.
“It’s tough,” said Millsap. “He’s a good player. We’ll have to figure something out. He’s going to get his, probably. We can’t have a guy like Morris with 20. Try to limit [Bradley] Beal’s touches and all the other guys, try to limit them as much as possible.”
The sequel takes place Wednesday night with Game 2 (7:00 PM EST, NBA TV) back here in D.C. Considering that the Hawks won the last postseason series between these two teams back in 2015, the Wizards are looking to write a new ending this time around. And that begins with their star Wall.
During Wall’s huge third quarter, after one assist led to a huge Morris slam, the Verizon Center crowd jumped to their feet and bellowed their approval. Wall looked to the fans and pointed at the court. His message?
“This is my house,” Wall said. “I’m letting them know this is my house. Like I said, I play in the moment. I play with a lot of energy and intensity and when I’m not being aggressive like that and into it, I’m not a great player. But if I’m into like that… if I’m scoring and my teammates are scoring, I’m always gonna be hype.”
Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.
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