With Wizards star John Wall sidelined by injury, Hawks even series at 1-1
ATLANTA -- When pressed for information on the Wizards' last-minute lineup curveball, Hawks wing DeMarre Carroll refused to disclose company secrets.
"If I tell you, I'd have to kill you," Atlanta's breakout postseason performer joked from the podium after being asked about the team's pregame adjustments.
Still, although hints at the possibility were present, what a series-shifting curveball it was.
All-Star point guard John Wall watched from the Wizards' bench dressed in a dark suit and checkered tie, unable to prevent the Hawks from tying up the Eastern Conference semifinal series at 1-1 on Tuesday night, pulling away for a 106-90 win. The reason for his on-court absence was the black-and-blue brace on his left wrist, and the swelling it hid underneath. Wall fell on the wrist after being inadvertently undercut by Hawks counterpart Jeff Teague during the second quarter of Game 1, a play at the rim that could alter the 5-seed's chances in this matchup.
The Wizards standout finished the opener in typically strong fashion but, despite publicly petitioning for playing time leading up to Game 2 and having his hand wrapped with double-padding for the occasion, the swelling and pain held him out. Wall walked out for pregame warmups only to walk off in dejection. The Wizards' best player was unable to contribute in an effort to steal two straight games at one of the toughest venues in the league this season.
Now, with the series knotted up, his wrist is the No. 1 topic of interest. A spot in the Eastern Conference finals could hinge on Wall's ability to play, and play effectively.
The Hawks, though surely monitoring Wall's injury from afar, found out about Wall's availability 60 minutes prior to the game when teams are required to turn in their active-inactive list. ("Honestly, I didn't even know until right before the game," Kent Bazemore said.) That last-minute surprise obviously altered the plans for both teams.
The Wizards were forced to start reserve Ramon Sessions. The Hawks were not forced to account for John Wall at every turn. Just how, specifically, it altered the latter's strategy, coach Mike Budenholzer & Co. wouldn't go into detail. Carroll comically threatened physical harm upon being asked for specifics. Bazemore deflected. Then again, this is who the Hawks are: They focus on themselves and worry about the outside stuff -- even the very, very important outside stuff -- as it comes.
"I think we went in just to kind of start with the game plan that we had with or without Wall," Budenholzer said. "And Sessions had a great game. He came in and played really well. It didn't really change anything except for John Wall's a heck of a player and I'm sure they would love to have him."
Sessions, whom the Wizards traded for back in February in a point guard swap with the Kings, did play surprisingly well, particularly offensively. He scored 21 points and dished out four assists. He hit must-have 3-pointers and scored on aggressive drives into the lane.
In fact, he surpassed Wall's Game 1 scoring efforts.
Still, though the Hawks didn't disclose details, Sessions noticed a few alterations in the defensive plan that he tried to take advantage of -- alterations that are not made if Wall is in the game.
"It was one of those things where they were keying in on Brad (Beal) and Paul (Pierce) so much that it was kinda giving me my shot. And I was just shooting," Sessions said. " ... Just trying to pick up from where John left off. It's hard filling a guy's shoes as great as he is, so I just tried to come in and play my game."
Not having Wall hurts in other areas as well. As Kyle Korver noted, the Wizards star affects the game on both ends of the floor. His length and athleticism create problems for 94 feet. Without Wall on the floor cutting off angles and passing lanes, Hawks point guards Teague and Dennis Schroder were able to get to better positions on the floor while running the offense. Budenholzer credited Teague with running an excellent floor game in the fourth quarter while filling up the box score with nine points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Schroder (nine points, four assists) played his best game this postseason.
Defensively, Sessions requires less help than arguably the fastest player in basketball, so the Hawks stuck with shooters longer instead of crashing down to close off driving lanes. Yes, Sessions walked away with some strong individual numbers and, yes, the Wizards still shot the ball well, but they faltered in a 15-point fourth quarter as the Hawks -- in a rare occurrence this postseason -- pulled away late.
(Side note: The Hawks didn't need to look past Monday night for added motivation. A few of Atlanta's players watched the Rockets-Clippers opener in which All-Star point guard Chris Paul sat out with a hamstring injury ... only to watch his lower-seeded team steal a game on the road. The Hawks didn't want to suffer the Rockets' fate.)
"It's dangerous, man. Typically players like to let their guards down if their best player's not playing. 'They don't have a chance,'" reserve wing Kent Bazemore said. "But, you know, they've got Paul Pierce over there. Bradley Beal can light it up. They still have a very dangerous team."
Even without Wall, the score was tight in the second half. The Wizards hung around. The Hawks had to find a way to shut the door even when their shots weren't falling.
That's the other end of the equation: Not only were the Wizards without their go-to star, the Hawks executed better down the stretch. After entering Game 2 ranked 14th in fourth-quarter offensive efficiency among all playoff teams, Atlanta finally hit some timely shots and outscored Washington by an 11-point margin in a game it desperately needed. How much Wall's absence and the Hawks' improvement are interconnected is unknown, but needless to say without an opposing All-Star on the floor it was within shouting distance of a must-win scenario for the East's top seed.
The series now shifts for Games 3 and 4 in Washington, and all eyes will be on one wrist.
Wall's injury is an inescapable turning point in this series. Washington coach Randy Wittman says his point guard will be listed as day-to-day -- although, it should be noted that the coach said everyone was available for Game 2 about 45 minutes before writing in Wall as an inactive -- and will be closely monitored up until Saturday's game. Wall has received two different medical opinions saying nothing is broken, and if that's the case it becomes a matter of pain management and decreasing the swelling. This three-day layoff could not come at a better time for Wittman's group.
"We played towards the end of the year without John. This is a confident group. We feel like we cam beat anybody with whomever we put out there," Wittman said. " ... He's our All-Star starter. He's our best player. Of course we miss him. But we're not going to cry foul and use that as an excuse."
There was very little to gain from playing Wall on Tuesday night, the risk outweighing the reward. The Wizards had already stolen home-court advantage with their Game 1 win and though the Hawks handed them their only postseason loss to date, it's worth it if Wall is able to return back in Washington. As the Hawks proved on Tuesday night, though, his presence is needed.