CHICAGO — Despite all the talk about the intensity, the attention, and the pressure of the playoffs, John Wall caught a pass on the Wizards’ first possession Sunday night and found, remarkably, that he was playing in just another basketball game.
“My jitters went away,” Wall said.
The discovery didn’t cure all of Wall’s problems on Sunday in the Wizards' 102-93 victory over the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 at United Center. Wall finished with 16 points and six assists, but he made just 4 of 14 shots, with eight points coming off free throws.
In fact, the Wizards dug themselves out of a 13-point third-quarter hole not on the backs of Wall and Bradley Beal, who shot just 3-for-11 himself and had 13 points, but behind veterans Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza and Nenê, who had a game-high 24 points in his first start since spraining the MCL in his left knee.
Those three, plus Andre Miller, Wall’s backup, scored the first 24 points of the fourth quarter, with Wall breaking that streak only when he knocked down a pair of free throws with 25 seconds remaining.
Miller, in particular, had the most surprising performance of them all. The 15-year veteran, acquired near the trade deadline in February for situations like the one he experienced Sunday, looked timid and out of sync when he first entered the game in the first quarter but blossomed when asked to relieve Wall again in the third.
He focused on containing D.J. Augustin, the Bulls‘ leading scorer, who had 16 points but was held to 3-of-15 shooting from the floor. That success, in turn, gave him confidence on the offensive end: He sank a midrange jumper with 1:24 remaining in the quarter, then scored eight of the Wizards’ first 12 points of the fourth quarter by driving to the basket for layups.
“That’s something that I’ve been doing my whole career,” said Miller, who finished with 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, tying his greatest number of attempts since the Wizards acquired him from Denver on Feb. 20. “It’s just the opportunity was there to go out and create some plays and get a couple shots, whether they were good or not, and having them go in.”
In the days leading up to the beginning of the series, much was made of the Wizards' playoff inexperience. Several players, including Gortat, even said that he would understand the Bulls being considered the favorite because they’ve been to the playoffs each of the last five years.
But Gortat, who had eight of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, appeared in 46 playoff games during his first three seasons when he was with the Orlando Magic — including an NBA Finals appearance in 2009. There, he lost to the Los Angeles Lakers and Ariza, who has played in 41 playoff games. Ariza, in turn, advanced out of the Western Conference finals by defeating the Nuggets and Nenê, who has logged 44 playoff games.
Toughened by those experiences, the first game of the first round on Sunday seemed easy by comparison. That calmness translated to Wall and Beal, who knew it was important to not let the circumstances of the game overwhelm them.
“There’s a lot of fuss about us being a young team, but you’ve got to remember, these guys are very mature for their ages,” Ariza said after the game. “You know, playing a whole season with them being the main focus of our team, they grow and they learn things and they go through things and they understand what they have to do.”
Wall made only one of his first five shots, a putback of his own floater just over two minutes into the game. Beal, too, struggled to find his groove; several of his shots in the second quarter, when he went 1-for-5, were just off the mark or rimmed out.
For much of the season, coach Randy Wittman has told the two young guards to focus on something else — rebounding, tight defense, reducing turnovers — when their shots aren’t falling. But on Sunday, he wasn’t fazed by their struggles; instead, he urged each of them to keep shooting, knowing that they were taking advantage of open looks and making otherwise good choices.