WASHINGTON - In the NBA playoffs, every minute counts. And not just minutes on the court during the game, but what happens after and between the games matter as well.
The practice, work, and time players put in all culminate to these moments where the fight to get to 16 wins before anyone else becomes a reality. Every player on the roster matters from the superstar to the last man on the bench.
Dahntay Jones mattered when the Cleveland Cavaliers won a championship last season. In 2015, David Lee came in and provided a spark off of the bench for the Golden State Warriors, after spending most of the playoffs out of normal playing rotation.
It’s not June, but like those players, Brandon Jennings answered the bell for the Wizards when they needed him against Atlanta on Wednesday. In a moment where every bucket counted, Jennings showed out.
Jennings scored 10 points on 4-5 shooting in 17 minutes along with two assists, but scored six of those points in the fourth quarter.
“Many guys pitched in to get this win, there’s no question. But [Jennings] was a big part of it,” Scott Brooks said. “We were down going into that stretch of the game. He came in, gave us energy and made some shots. He plays with a chip on his shoulder.”
With the Wizards down 80-76, Jennings pulled up for a jumper over Jose Calderon. Swish. The Hawks return the favor a couple possessions later after Tim Hardaway knocks down two free throws. The lead returns to four, the Hawks are up 82-78.
The Wizards turned the ball over and allowed Taurean Prince to get a bucket on the other end. The lead is pushed up to 84-78. The Wizards are down six and look listless with their bench in the game.
But Jennings isn’t having it. He hits Mike Muscala with a hesitation dribble and steps back. Shoots the ball. Swish. It drops. The Wizards are still down 84-80.
The Hawks turn the ball over on the next possession and Jennings brings the ball up the court. He sizes up Calderon, nearly loses the dribble, crosses over, steps back and shoots from the top of the key. Swish. Wiz down 84-82.
Jennings is feeling it. Calderon misses a three. Jennings gets the ball back after the Wizards corral the rebound and nearly pulls up for three on the other end, but passes it up. He gets the ball back, goes through a staggered screen, drives toward the rim and fakes the shot. Jason Smith cuts to the bucket and Jennings delivers it on a platter.
The game is tied. The crowd explodes. John Wall skips onto the floor with two towels. in hand. “Yes! Let’s go,” Wall exclaims after he meets Jennings off of the bench.
From that moment on, the Wizards took control of a game that seemed to be slipping out of their hands. A player who has taken 106 shots in Washington and scored just 81 points went on a personal 8-0 run when it mattered to give the Wizards the game back.
But if you ask Jennings, he was just doing his job.
“That’s why it’s a team sport. Everybody has to step up. When your number is called be ready and just contribute as much as you can,” he said.
Brooks said the shots Jennings took to get the Wizards back into the game are shots he has been working on in practice every day.
“It’s good for him to make a couple shots,” Brooks said. “He’s created a lot of shots for guys. That’s what point guards do.”
Years ago, calling Jennings a “pass first” point guard would have seemed silly. He was known as a scorer in Milwaukee after scoring 55 points as a rookie. The most common comparison, albeit a lazy one, people had for Jennings was Allen Iverson.
But Jennings has morphed his game. He is no longer gunner. Sure, he can get up shots when he wants. But he uses flashy dribble moves and herky-jerky hesitations with the ball to create passing lanes and find his teammates.
And along with that, he also has a habit of picking up opposing guards full court in Washington. He forced two turnovers during Wednesday’s game doing just that against Atlanta. No one would call Jennings a lock down defender, but ball pressure is ball pressure.
Jennings can play both flashy and feisty now. Whatever the team needs, he’ll do.
He has been the “main guy” before, Wall said, but things have changed throughout his career and he has been willing to accept whatever role he gets.
“I always tell him at certain times you just got to be aggressive and look for your shot,” Wall said. “He made some plays for us defensively.”
Jennings called his play on Wednesday a “confidence booster.” He was able to get to his spots on the floor and make plays. But at the end of the day, he said, there is one goal in mind.
“Never satisfied. They’re going to be hyped up to play at home,” he said. “We have to match their intensity. We’ve just got to stay together.”