Wizards relishing chance to settle old score with Hawks

WASHINGTON – The uniforms and team colors are different. The roster has been flipped with the exception of five players. But to John Wall and Bradley Beal, they are still the Atlanta Hawks. Still the team they’ve spent two years believing they were better than the last time Washington was in the postseason. The same team that got lucky when Wall broke bones in his hands and wrist after the since-departed Jeff Teague inadvertently undercut him on a fast-break layup. The same team for which they’ve been waiting for an opportunity to get some payback ever since.

Wall and Beal aspire to do more than simply advance beyond the first round in these playoffs, but they know they can’t get there without first eliminating a foe that doesn’t look the same but has provided plenty of motivation. “Definitely, in the back of my head, I’m still thinking about it,” Beal told The Vertical after scoring 31 points to help the Washington Wizards take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 109-101 victory Wednesday at Verizon Center. “Last time we were in this position, we were playing this team. Regardless of who is on the team or not, they knocked us out. It’s still the same organization. Nothing’s changed except we have a different seed this year.”

The Wizards haven’t dominated the Hawks; they’ve made enough plays in the end – mostly with their young but seasoned backcourt leading the way. They’ve used lessons learned from past postseason failures against Indiana and Atlanta – both occurring in the second round. They’ve matured from that 2015 series against Atlanta both physically and mentally. They no longer have to lean on Paul Pierce to instill confidence in them, no longer look to another more experienced veteran for pointers or guidance.

Bradley Beal has helped the Wizards rise. (AP)
Bradley Beal has helped the Wizards rise. (AP)

“We’re getting older,” Beal told The Vertical. “It’s me and John, and we’re going to lead the way and we’re going to continue to believe in ourselves. We have all the assets and pieces. We continue to preach to the guys, ‘We know what type of team we want to be and we know it starts with us two.’ As much as we can, it’s tough. I’m only 23 telling guys what to do.”

There is a misconception that Wall and Beal are a rising backcourt because they are 26 and 23, respectively. But they’re proven commodities on this stage, at least statistically. They have two playoff series wins under their belts and have led the Wizards to seven consecutive wins in the first round, improving their overall record in the opening round to 10-1. They led the Wizards to a somewhat surprising first-round upset of the Chicago Bulls in 2014, when Beal wasn’t even old enough to legally drink but still had two 25-point games and smack talked the city’s famous pizza, claiming that he preferred the kind that hailed from his hometown St. Louis. The following year in the first round against Toronto, Beal was caught on camera shouting that Raptors guard Kyle Lowry couldn’t “[expletive] with him.”

One of the reasons the Wizards were confident investing a five-year, $127 million contract in Beal last summer – despite Beal’s bouts with unfortunate injuries, particularly with his right leg – is because he had shown his worth in the postseason, serving as the leading scorer in the team’s previous two postseason appearances. Wall has held that title through the first two games against the Hawks, but they have no problem sharing the spotlight because the team gets to share in the glory.

“We’re controlling what we can control,” Beal told The Vertical. “We’re not too worried about pleasing other people. Of what their expectations may be. We know what we’re capable of and what we want to do. We have big goals set for ourselves. We want to get to the Eastern Conference finals and the Finals.”

Wall shut down any questions about his passion for the game and dedication to be great during the series loss to Atlanta. Despite suffering an injury that would’ve made him miss a month or two in the regular season, Wall missed three games – including two losses – and the Wizards came close to forcing a Game 7 but a corner 3-pointer by Pierce that would’ve forced overtime in Game 6 was a split-second too late. “I’m still aggravated,” Wall recently told The Vertical about that loss to the Hawks. “You use that as motivation.”

Dennis Schroder, a pesky point guard who drew an angry glare from Wall after a ferocious dunk in the third period, has since replaced Teague. Paul Millsap is the only starter left from that 60-win Hawks team, which has undergone a major renovation in short order. The Wizards have also changed, with Wall and Beal humbled by missing the postseason last year, more appreciative of their partnership and more eager to perform under pressure.

Wall isn’t afraid of these moments as he had been in the past. He hunts them down. Conquers them. The experience that he has gained from his previous postseason performances prepared him for the situations that he now embraces. He has accepted the challenge from his coach to lead, not only with his individual production, but also in believing in his teammates to take and make shots with the game on the line. Beal wasn’t having the best shooting night Wednesday, especially from 3-point range, but Wall knew exactly where he had to go when the Wizards needed a late dagger. Wall even raised his hands, calling the shot good, before Beal completed his release.

“We’re doing a great job of making shots, but also making the right plays for our teammates. It’s a lot of experience, having the experience going through it,” Wall said. “We’ve been in those situations, during the regular season, in the playoffs, when we didn’t have the confidence. But we were put in those situations [in the past] to take the shots and supposed to make them and we didn’t do that. But at the same time, we put in a lot of work.”

The debate over the Eastern Conference’s second-best player has been a revolving door of competitors this season. Several players have taken turns holding the spot beneath LeBron James, but that grasp has been loose to say the least. This postseason, a case could be made for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Indiana’s Paul George and, of course, Wall, who has posted 64 points and 23 assists through the first two games of this series.

Wall took over in the third quarter of Game 1, demoralizing the Hawks with scoring and playmaking. He shut down the Hawks in the fourth quarter of Game 2, providing two highlight-worthy clutch plays – spinning around Schroder to hit a fadeaway jumper and slipping behind Kent Bazemore to knock the ball loose before throwing down a dunk and swinging on the rim with the exuberance of a little kid on a jungle gym.

The advantage Wall has over his competitors for second best in the East is that he has a running mate in Beal who is equally unafraid in those moments. Adapting a philosophy from his agent, Mark Bartelstein – “A miss ain’t nothing but a lady.” – Beal has been able to block out some poor shooting in the first three quarters of the first two games to rescue his team in the fourth quarter. Beal has scored 28 of his 53 points this series in the final period.

“We’ve grown a lot,” Beal told The Vertical. “We have a better mental approach than we’ve had before in the playoffs. It’s a great feeling. It’s great to be able to learn from the past and to utilize it today. We’re in a position where we have a chance to do something special and be able to put them away. But we know it’s going to get tougher.”

The Wizards now head to Atlanta, where two road wins could mean their second consecutive first-round sweep. How they get the next two games isn’t nearly as important as advancing, but Wall is confident that the Wizards can acheive that goal because, “We feel we haven’t played our best basketball yet.”

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