Games 1 and 2 of the Washington Wizards-Atlanta Hawks first round playoff series have been close in the final minutes. The Wizards were able to build a 2-0 advantage by executing down the stretch. But as the series has progressed, it’s apparent that John Wall has played a central role in helping his team keep a mental edge.
“It’s just a mental challenge more than anything,” said Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal, who has struggled with his shot for much of the series. “Everybody’s tired, everybody’s mentally drained, everybody’s physically drained at this time of the year.”
Beal credited Wall with helping him stay confident despite his shooting slump.
“He wants me to shoot the ball and he says he trusts me more than anybody on the team to take those big shots,” said Beal. “That’s a great feeling when your [point guard] has that confidence in you.”
Wall said that keeping Beal’s confidence up has been one of the keys to Washington’s early success in the series.
“He didn’t know he shot it 27 [times] until he got in the locker room,” said Wall. “We said, those are all good shots you’re taking. When he’s aggressive for us, it’ll open up the floor for me.”
But Wall doesn’t just give speeches in the locker room. For Wall, helping his teammates maintain that mental edge is a process that continues throughout the game.
“He had one on the floppy play, he was wide open and missed it,” Wall said of Beal. “He was kind of frustrated. I was like, no, those are great looks. I’m going to keep finding you. Those shots are going to come and you’re going to make them.”
The Wizards got a lift off the bench from Brandon Jennings, who scored 10 points with four rebounds and two assists in Game 2. Once again, it was Wall pushing the right buttons.
“I always tell him, at certain times you’ve just got to be aggressive and look for your shot,” said Wall.
Beal said Jennings’ spark off the bench was one of the keys to earning a 2-0 series lead.
“I feel like we were a little stagnant on offense,” said Beal. “We weren’t really knocking down shots. Brandon did a tremendous job of keeping us in it. He pushes the pace every time he’s in the game, which is what we needed.”
Meanwhile, Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder conceded that it was the absence of that mental edge that, in part, cost the Hawks another close game.
“We could have got that game,” said Schroder. “We [were] right there. Down the stretch in crunch time we had two or three turnovers. We’ve just got to be better in crunch time.”
And while Wall is heavily focused on keeping his teammates confident on the offensive end, Hawks power forward Paul Millsap said the Wizards have also out-performed Atlanta on the defensive end.
“They’re doing a better job of guarding us, simple as that,” said Millsap of the Hawks’ struggles from the three-point line. “They’re taking away our three-point shooters. They’re not helping as much. Eventually, we’re going to have to loosen that up.”
Eventually may not come soon enough for Atlanta, which will need to win four out of five games to survive the series. With Wall relentlessly pushing his team, it’s a steep hill for the Hawks to climb. Game 3 tips off Saturday at 5:30 PM in Atlanta. The Hawks must find a way to achieve the mental edge Washington has monopolized to this point in the series. Otherwise, Atlanta’s 10th consecutive playoff appearance may be a brief one.
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