John Wall grabbed the stat sheet from the Washington Wizards’ 114-94 loss to the Miami Heat on Saturday and the numbers supported what he later tried to deny: one team was moving in standard definition while the other was in HD.
“They had about 30 more rebounds than us,” an incredulous Wall said to Bradley Beal before rolling his eyes and shaking his head.
The Wizards had an easy excuse for getting smoked off the court, playing their third game in as many nights. But Wall didn’t want to use fatigue as an excuse for letting the Heat grab 67 rebounds and score 70 points in the paint. “It’s having heart,” Wall told reporters surrounding his locker-room stall afterward. “We still could’ve competed at a better level. We were getting killed on everything.”
With only 28 games remaining, the Wizards are running out of time and excuses if they plan to make a third straight trip to the postseason. Team president Ernie Grunfeld provided “a jolt” with the trade-deadline acquisition of Markieff Morris from Phoenix – a move that perhaps signaled the desperation in a critical season for a franchise that has seemingly been in a holding pattern, waiting for this summer, when hometown superstar Kevin Durant will decide what he’ll do in free agency.
“I know what our goal is, to try to go after Kevin, which is not a bad situation. But my ultimate goal is this year. I ain’t trying to waste a season,” Wall recently told The Vertical. “I’m in my sixth year. Time don’t wait for nobody and I’ve dealt with it my first three years of not being in the playoffs. I know how it feels to have a longer summer, a longer vacation. I don’t want that. I want to be seen on TV. I know the city wants to see that. And as a point guard, you get known as being a winner in this league, not being a loser. And that’s something I never want to do. Since I’ve been in the playoffs, I want to finish my career making the playoffs every single year if I have the opportunity.”
Wall is having arguably the finest statistical season of his career at a time when his team his trying to avoid capsizing under a deluge of injuries, inconsistency and defensive inefficiency. The grind has been especially hard on Wall, the only player on the team to start all 54 games despite dealing with some minor injuries that require frequent attention. He has felt an obligation to keep suiting up because, “I knew I didn’t want to get too far behind. I knew the team needed me as much as possible.”
A blizzard in Washington last month created a unique situation for the Wizards coming back from the All-Star break. The adjusted schedule meant they were forced to play three games in three nights against teams contending for playoff spots.
The Wizards went 2-1, claiming home wins over Utah and Detroit before the thud in Miami. Wall came away encouraged about his team's chances of extending its season beyond 82 games but disappointed the grueling stretch – one he hadn't experienced since the lockout – wasn't rewarded with an extra night on South Beach. He had to settle for survival.
Wednesday, Feb. 17
Roughly two hours after a late afternoon practice ended, Wall finally emerged from the locker room wearing sweats while holding a plastic container filled with beef and broccoli and a cup of Dunkin Donuts hot chocolate. (He prefers McDonald's but the machine at the restaurant attached to Verizon Center is down for the umpteenth time.) As usual, Wall was the last player to leave, having spent time in the cold tub, fulfilling his media obligations and receiving treatment on a right knee injury that nearly kept him from participating in his third All-Star Game in Toronto.
Wall banged knees with Milwaukee's O.J. Mayo in the final game before the break, developing a deep thigh bruise, and brought Wizards director of player performance and rehabilitation Thomas Knox with him through customs. Two-hour treatment sessions on Friday and Saturday night helped alleviate swelling so that Wall could score 22 points in 20 minutes in Kobe Bryant's final All-Star Game.
“If he didn’t come and I didn’t get treatment, I wasn’t going to play,” Wall told The Vertical of Knox, “because it was hard to move, hard to try to run, but I flushed a lot of fluid out, a lot of swelling that was in there. Before, you wouldn’t even think I had a kneecap because the swelling was just building up.”
Knox advised Wall to take the next two days off after the All-Star Game for physical and mental recovery, so Wall traded in the frigid wind chill of Canada for some sun in Miami. Wall had planned to rent a boat and head to the beach but windy conditions kept him mostly on his balcony, relaxing. He caught a private jet to Washington Dulles International Airport the morning of practice and his personal driver, Eric Christian, got him to his downtown condo in time to catch a nap before getting back to work.
Between bites of food, Wall explained that he got off to a slow start this season partly because he wasn't in proper shape to run the team’s new up-tempo, pace-and-space offense. His game started to turn a corner in December once his body got adjusted. Now maintenance is key the rest of the way. He was in a bit of a rush to get back to his home in Potomac, Md., where he planned to get a massage from team massage therapist Electra Liatos and a meal from a personal chef who works with Wall throughout the year, even traveling to his off-season home in Los Angeles. The Raleigh, N.C., native then watched North Carolina and Duke while packing early for Miami.
“You grow up in North Carolina, your dream is Carolina or Duke. I don’t cheer for either one of them. Neither one of them offered me, so I don’t care about them. I just like good basketball,” said Wall, the first No. 1 overall pick to come out of Kentucky.
Thursday, Feb. 18: Utah Jazz
About two minutes before the Morris deal was reported by The Vertical, Wizards vice president Tommy Sheppard called Wall with the news. Wall had made it known to reporters on Wednesday that he hoped the team would acquire a quality stretch forward to help spread the floor. At the time, he knew the Wizards were interested in Morris and New Orleans' Ryan Anderson, but he never suggested to the front office that it needed to make a move.
“From watching the games, they should be able to see,” Wall told The Vertical.
Wall felt that he and Beal had proven last postseason – when Wall played despite a broken right hand and Beal led the team in scoring at age 21 – that they were ready to lead, with a little immediate help. Though recent comments by Durant appear to have placed the Wizards in the friend zone in regards to a free-agent commitment, the team still clings to some slight hope. But Wall believes Washington has established itself as a free-agent destination in his time with the organization. “I think so,” Wall told The Vertical. “Probably not right now, but the last two years, being a young team, getting to the second round. It’s pretty big and we took good teams to the test, and I think if we had a little bit of experience and closed out some games, could’ve been in Eastern Conference finals. So the window was right there.”
The addition of Morris should help, giving the team a 26-year-old forward who can consistently hit midrange jumpers and post up. The team’s depth is also strengthened with Jared Dudley moving to a reserve role. “I think this is the piece that helps us get over the hump,” Wall told The Vertical. “I don’t think we were throwing [the season] away but it kind of felt that way because we had nine guys on one-year contracts. We definitely want to win, we don’t want nothing to drop.”
When Wall arrived to the arena before facing the Jazz, Wizards assistant Pat Sullivan joked that the team was trying to move him "but nobody wanted you." Wall later mimed rubbing tears from his eyes and laughed as he said, "I was scared. I thought I was going to get traded."
After a short, pre-game massage and some plain cheese pizza, Wall delivered a performance that showed exactly how much the Wizards need him. Wall finished with 17 points, 11 assists and two incredible highlight plays in which he whirled the ball behind his back, from left to right, before making layups in transition. By the end of the night, Wall high-fived a little kid seated in the front row and slapped hands with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis before sitting late in the 103-89 win.
Friday, Feb. 19: Detroit Pistons
For home game days, Wall usually arrives about four hours before the game to get treatment, lift weights and get a short massage. Wall is meticulous with his routine and will let it be known if participants in his rituals are off. With 67 minutes left before game time, Wall headed to the main court to shoot spot up 3-pointers and mid-range jumpers for 15 minutes with Wizards assistant Howard Eisley.
“Knowing how much I’m dedicated to the game of basketball, I want to be great at this and I know there’s a lot more steps I can get better,” Wall told The Vertical. “It’s maturing in this league, understanding. You really need to do these things instead of thinking you’re going to just go play.”
Wall is rarely one to filter an opinion and last summer he made a comment about how the changing NBA salary structure and expanded cap was starting to get out of whack. Just two summers earlier, the Wizards were criticized for giving Wall a five-year, $80 million extension after he was coming off a serious knee injury. The deal has begun to look like a bargain with Wall being an All-Star compared to some contracts signed last summer. But he also noticed, "I'm getting the same as Reggie Jackson."
Though he later told Jackson he meant no disrespect, Wall expected to have an intense one-on-one matchup with the Pistons’ point guard. That never materialized as Wall had the edge on this night, scoring a game-high 22 with eight assists in a 98-86 win. One of the assists came after Wall used a hesitation dribble to make Jackson stumble around a pick and then fed Marcin Gortat for a dunk.
“I still think I get overlooked sometimes,” Wall told The Vertical. “Some people say I’m not a top-five point guard. In my opinion, I think I’m top three. I only see two people ahead of me: Steph [Curry] and Russ [Westbrook] right now. Steph is on a heck of a pedestal and Russ is putting up triple doubles and they’re winning. That’s my opinion. That’s just being honest, but I just go out and compete and if I’m winning games, my game will do the talking for itself.”
The Wizards are also looking for Wall to be more of a vocal leader after losing Paul Pierce and, before him, Trevor Ariza in consecutive years. After a defensive breakdown led to a Jackson layup, Wall shouted at Nene for help. During the next timeout, Wall pulled Nene aside and they discussed the play with a much softer tone.
After scratching off the first two wins, Wall told The Vertical he felt surprisingly refreshed before heading to the airport to catch the team flight down to Miami.
Saturday, Feb. 20: Miami Heat
The Wizards checked into the Four Seasons in Miami around 2:30 a.m. and had a team breakfast meeting 10 hours later. Though he didn’t have to show up to American Airlines Arena until about 5:45 pm, Wall didn't appear to have any legs. He looked gassed trying to keep up with the Heat's Goran Dragic, a downhill sprinting point guard who doubled Wall in scoring 24-12 in leading his team to a 20-point win.
Wall left the game with just under four minutes remaining and the Wizards trailing by 21. He stuffed his mouth guard in a case near the scorer's table, untucked his jersey and grabbed a seat to cheer on his teammates in garbage time in a game in which the Heat dominated despite missing Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
As he got dressed in the locker room and chatted with Beal, his locker-room stall neighbor on this night, both marveled about the presence of the Heat’s Hassan Whiteside, who came off the bench and had 25 points and 23 rebounds. Wall later slipped on a gold medallion with a star inside of a diamond-encrusted circle that reads, "Wall Star."
Having established himself as one of the best players in basketball, Wall has grown frustrated with his relatively low profile nationally and in Washington. Wall has few endorsements and became a sneaker free agent when his contract with adidas expired last September. He feels the limited exposure contributed to him finishing sixth in All-Star voting for Eastern Conference guards one year after finishing first.
“The type of player I am, and person I am, character I have, I should be seen on commercials, in the nation’s eyes and the people’s eyes. And I haven’t,” Wall told The Vertical. “I want to leave a legacy and you can’t leave a legacy hiding behind the doors, and I think that’s what I did my first six years really. It ain’t like I want to be bigger and better than anybody, I just think it’s an opportunity to be seen. Where’s my little share?”
For Wall, the change is startling considering his popularity after one season at Kentucky, where “I was everywhere,” Wall said. “I ain’t got no billboards in D.C.”
Another playoff run could contribute in making Wall more marketable. The Wizards are three and a half games out of the eighth spot and four and a half games out of the fifth spot in the jumbled East, so they need to quickly incorporate Morris, welcome back Alan Anderson from a season-long ankle injury and string together some wins.
“I think the East is still open in my opinion,” Wall told The Vertical. “To be only a few games out of the eighth seed and how bad we played with all the injuries, you can’t ask for a better opportunity. We know what it takes. We know what we have at stake.”
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