WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s unclear exactly when John Wall got his mojo back. Maybe it started on the plane ride to Indianapolis, when he watched movies and remained unusually quiet while thinking to himself: “If we lost this series, I’d put it all on my shoulders.”
Maybe it was before the game, when he confessed his frustration to Randy Wittman and was promptly admonished by the coach: “He was like, ‘I never want to hear you say that ever again, because I know how confident you are in yourself and I know how competitive you are.'”
Maybe it was when teammate Marcin Gortat, who had also been struggling in the series, pounded Wall on the chest after the starting lineups were announced and offered support “no matter what.”
One thing is clear: If the Washington Wizards manage the improbable and overcome a 3-1 series deficit against the Indiana Pacers, the turning point will be the moment their All-Star point guard stopped playing like a playoff novice.
“You can get down on yourself pretty easy,” Wall said.
Unable to hit a shot or come through in clutch late-game situations in the first four games, Wall was all over the stat sheet in Tuesday’s Game 5 rout: 27 points, five rebounds, five assists, five turnovers. He and the Wizards stayed alive, but only one-third of the would-be comeback is complete as they return home for Thursday’s Game 6, trailing 3-2 in the series.
To get it done, they’ll need similar efforts from Wall, whom teammates have dubbed the Wizards’ “head of the snake.”
“For the first time in 102, 103 games that we had this season, I seen this guy that didn’t want to talk to anybody,” Gortat said. “He didn’t want to interact with anybody. He didn’t rap before the game. He didn’t laugh before the game. I guess it’s just a lot of things around basketball that has influence on him. … But at the end of the day, I’m with him. End of the day, I’m going to jump in the fire behind this guy.”
Wall was 16 for 51 from the field, including 1 for 11 from 3-point range, in the first four games. The pressure of the postseason seemed to get the better of him when he unwisely rushed a shot or two and got stripped late in Game 2, then passed up a wide-open 3-pointer that would have tied Game 4.
Still to be determined is whether he has solved his late-game jitters — Tuesday was a 23-point win, so he sat almost the entire fourth quarter — but he finished 11 for 20 from the field in Game 5, including 3 for 6 behind the arc, and he ran the floor with authority.
Wittman said he told Wall before the game: “You go out there and play as aggressive as you can at both ends of the floor and don’t worry about mistakes, and don’t worry about made or missed shots. You’ve got to be aggressive.”
“When he’s tentative,” Wittman added, “that’s not John.”
Game 5 was a change of pace on many fronts. For one, the Wizards realized that halftime is only 15 minutes long. After losing the third quarter by an average 10½ points through the first four games, Washington pulled away with a 31-14 third period.
Gortat, barely a presence in Games 3 and 4, again proved worthy of his “Polish Hammer” nickname with 31 points and 16 rebounds. The Wizards’ rebounding margin of plus-39 (62-23) tied for third highest in NBA playoff history.
“We should never get outrebounded by 40,” Indiana’s Paul George said. “It was like their life was dependent on those rebounds.”
Now the Wizards have to figure out how to bring the road show home. They are 5-1 away in this year’s playoffs and just 1-3 at the Verizon Center.
“Everybody knows how we play at home. Quite honestly, we struggle at home,” Gortat said. “It’s going to be huge pressure.”
Much of the pressure will again be on Wall, with the Pacers attempting to stop the mojo revival and avoid a Game 7.
“John actually hit some shots and things like that,” Indiana’s George Hill said. “As a guard I’ve got to get better and try to make it tough on him again, and not let him get off like that.”
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