These are the type of games Washington always seem to let up. With their backs against the wall, Charlotte on their tail and an Indiana team in the midst of a three-game road losing streak, I'm pretty sure we all knew where this was headed.
But John Wall had other things in mind, and he closed this one out in superb fashion. He halted Indiana's late-game comeback, picking up a pair of clutch assists to Drew Gooden and Marcin Gortat and nailing a 26-footer from above the break to secure the 91-78 victory over the Pacers.
After building a comfortable double-digit lead in the third quarter, Frank Vogel made one final push by putting his starters in to begin the fourth. Washington's offense couldn't have picked a more inopportune time to go cold from the field. Bradley Beal struggled to find his shot all night long, Roy Hibbert shut down the paint against the AARP unit, and they made their run. After a pair of jumpers by George Hill and Hibbert, Indiana had cut it 12 with six minutes to go.
It was gut-check time, and the Wallstar emerged. Against a sinking Indiana defense, he didn't rush and settle for jumpers as he's done for most of the year. Instead he waited and found teammates, and when those options were shut down, took it himself to the basket. It was the type of effort we've been longing for all year. He's shown the ability to manipulate defenses that give him the open long two-pointer, but has never put it together for a full 82 games. But that's fine, he's 23 years old, and with a developed jumper, he's is still learning the nuances of running an offense.
We all know about his struggles going up against the Indiana Pacers. Couple an inconsistent shooter that frequently falls in love with his jumper with the fact that a defensive behemoth is ready to meet him at the rim any time, and it's no wonder why the Wizards never seem to score efficiently in these games. Coming into tonight, Wall was just 8-29 from the field for 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists in two games against the Pacers.
You can forget about all that for now. It wasn't a breathtaking performance by any means, but he controlled the pace of the game by pushing the ball against an unset Pacers defense. It helps that the midrange jumper was falling as well, but his contributions go well beyond his shooting percentage. He regularly found Gortat diving to the rim with some well-timed passes, which is so impressive considering how often Indiana's scheme takes away his passing lanes.
He was also the catalyst for Indiana's 10 turnovers in the first half. In their last meeting, Washington failed to muster even a single transition bucket, but had 11 fast break points before halftime. Indiana was pretty careless with the ball, but give credit where it's due. Trevor Ariza disrupted a lot of their halfcourt sets by denying Paul George, and Wall took full advantage by playing the passing lanes.
The second quarter belonged to Al Harrington. Matched up against David West, he repeatedly beat him down court, and Andre Miller, famous for his outlet passes, had very little trouble getting the ball to him down low. His ability to stretch the floor is huge in any setting, but particularly against Indiana, who rarely lets their bigs roam around the perimeter. He made it very difficult for Wittman to sub him out for Trevor Booker, but of course, Wittman did it anyway and the offense decayed down the stretch to close out the half.
Luckily, Ariza broke the game wide open in the third. Mired in the shooting slump in the first half, he did what Washington's wings never seem to do under these circumstances: get to the line. He's never the most conventional ball handler, and he had Paul George on him to boot, but he curled off screens towards the middle, took one or two dribbles, and got himself to the lane. I always get on Wall for not selling contact better; he may want to take a page out of Trevor's book.
You can't understate the importance of this game. Wins against above .500 teams don't come often enough, much less against a Pacers team that always has their number. Their next test: not getting caught napping against a well-rested Hawks team tomorrow night.