The Wizards needed some lightning, and John Wall gave them a thundering flash of brilliance.
Game 1 of an Atlanta-Washington series that was expected to be close wasn’t pretty, but Wall was masterful, amassing 32 points and 14 assists in a frenetic effort to drag his team from a sluggish start, and the Wizards comfortably won their first home Game 1 since 1979 by a less telling 114-107 margin.
“You can’t ask for nothing more,” Wall told the NBA on TNT telecast afterwards. “I’ve been through a lot in seven years. To finally get a home playoff game — to start off here and not come here for Games 3 and 4 — it was great. As you could tell, a lot of guys were nervous early on, but … everybody gave us big minutes and played with intensity. They understand what this means.”
After starting the season 5-6 at home, Wall called out his teammates’ lack of effort, and the Wizards responded by winning 25 of their final 30 games at the Verizon Center. Sunday seemed like a microcosm of that relationship, with Washington struggling to find their footing and falling behind by as many as eight points in the second quarter, before Wall went wild with 15 points and four assists in his team’s difference-making 38-point third quarter. The Hawks had no answer and never recovered.
The first quarter was a feeling-out period for both teams. The Wizards found comfort in a dominant starting lineup. Wall threaded needles, including a swirling transition feed to Markieff Morris that capped a 9-0 run and pushed Washington’s lead to double digits barely seven minutes into the game.
But Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer found a way to stall the momentum, calling a timeout and inserting a pair of shooters — Mike Muscala and Ersan Ilyasova — who spread the floor for a bench lineup (with Dennis Schroder) that closed the quarter on a 17-2 run. The result was a 29-25 Hawks lead that had to give Wizards coach Scott Brooks pause about going to his bench any more than necessary.
Neither team found a rhythm early, highlighted by the two clubs combining to shoot 12-of-43 (27 percent) in the second quarter. When even Bradley Beal is starting 3-of-9 from the field, you know the playoff atmosphere is getting to everybody. Still, Wall was relentless, collecting 13 points and seven assists and scoring or assisting on all but five of Washington’s baskets in the first half. The Wizards managed 12 more shots than the Hawks in the opening 24 minutes, but Paul Millsap led a beastly effort that helped the Hawks get to the line 22 times and stake themselves to a 48-45 halftime lead.
It was getting ugly, and some chippiness between Millsap and Markieff Morris accentuated that:
Millsap: "foot on the line."Welcome to the #NBAPlayoffs #dcfamily pic.twitter.com/qNBpRjHNXa
Keef: "shut up."
— Hoop District (@HoopDistrictDC) April 16, 2017
Wall kept coming in the third quarter, playing all but one minute. He singlehandedly pushed the tempo, contributing to 24 of Washington’s 38 points in the frame. Morris proved a reliable option on both ends, and the Wizards needed his ferocity, since backup center Jason Smith suffered a scary leg injury just before the fourth quarter. Already without Ian Mahinmi (strained calf), the Wiz were thin in the frontcourt, and that can spell trouble in a series opposite Dwight Howard (14 boards on Sunday).
Through three quarters, though, Wall had as many assists (11) as the entire Hawks roster, and the Wizards had their double-digit advantage back two minutes into the fourth quarter. Beal (22 points on 21 shots) finally began finding his groove. Washington never looked back in a comfortable win.