Al Harrington was halfway out of his seat on the Washington Wizards' bench when he saw John Wall catch the ball and square himself up for a 3-pointer on Sunday night.
Wall had made one three and a half minutes earlier, temporarily staving off the Indiana Pacers' second-half rally and giving the Wizards a six-point lead. That advantage had since crumbled, and with Washington down three with 51 seconds remaining, putting the ball in the hands of the team's franchise player and inviting him to take a big-time shot beckoned pandemonium.
After a moment's hesitation, though, Wall passed the ball. Bradley Beal, open on the other wing, missed his 3-point attempt.
"He made shots throughout the game and that's who the play was for," Wall said after the game, one the Wizards lost, 95-92. "I made the right decision, I think, in my opinion."
Wall, the Wizards' heart and soul, knew his basketball acuity would be tested during his first trip to the postseason. He said as much prior to Washington's first-round series against the Chicago Bulls, when he averaged 18.8 points and 6.8 assists and was key to his team's ability to advance to the second round.
What he has experienced against Indiana has been completely different. With the Pacers' main defensive goal to take Wall's playmaking ability out of the game, the Wizards' point guard has struggled with his shot, made careless errors and, at times, looked downright lost.
Those challenges are a large part in why the Wizards enter Tuesday on the precipice of playoff elimination, needing a victory in Game 5 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to keep their season alive.
"Obviously, it hasn't gone, I think, the way it's capable of going for him, but I think the main thing is he's got to stay who he is and what he does on the floor, in terms of his aggressiveness and taking the opportunities when they present themselves," coach Randy Wittman said Monday.
"You can't have any hesitation in terms of what you're doing. You can't premeditate anything that you're doing. That's the main thing. I think he's just got to keep fighting through it, and the main thing is keeping his confidence and staying aggressive in what he's doing out on the floor. That's who he is."
Wall had just 12 turnovers in the Chicago series, but his ball control and decision-making have been tested by the Pacers. He was credited with one turnover in each of the first two games of the series, then committed seven in Game 3 on Friday and had another five in Game 4 on Sunday.
He hasn't been able to run the offense at the Wizards' preferred pace, which owes more to Indiana's high shooting percentage in the last two games as well as its decision to rotate an extra defender into the backcourt, forgoing the offensive rebound.
The Wizards can survive periodic stretches running a halfcourt game, as they did Sunday night during the first quarter, but they won't be able to hold off the Pacers for long stretches.
They also won't be able to do so if Wall stops shooting. Though he's averaging a solid 11.5 points per game in the four games against the Pacers, he became an all-star this season because he worked to improve his range and his aggression, neither of which have been on display in recent games.
In the hours between the Sunday morning shootaround and the start of Game 4, Wall spent a significant amount of time watching film of shots he's made — a confidence boost, perhaps, and one likely spurred on by a coach, Wittman, whose video sessions often accentuate the positives more than the negatives.
"I'm going to keep shooting it if it's there, and hopefully they fall the next game," Wall said. "But it hasn't been like that [all season]. In one stretch, I might make one or two, but I miss the next couple. I'm just trying to keep my confidence and keep shooting."
Pacers point guard George Hill struggled in his first-round matchup with the Atlanta Hawks' Jeff Teague, and it seemed before the series Hill might have had his work cut out for him handling Wall. The Pacers used their best two-way player, Paul George, to cover Teague as the first-round series wore on, and the idea they might have George do the same with Wall was not implausible.
Instead, Hill has managed to stay with Wall, foiling him now twice late. He stripped Wall of the ball as he drove to the rim in the final minute of Game 2, essentially handing the Pacers the victory, and it was Hill who was closing in when Wall passed on the open shot late Sunday night.
Having the fortitude to close out a series is something the Pacers, who have been in the playoffs each of the last three seasons, have developed. It's something that Wall, still a postseason rookie, can take away from the Wizards' run.
"[It's about] staying in the moment and learning what the playoffs are all about," Wittman said. "It's a very intensified situation that's different than a regular-season game, and you only gain that experience by going through it. ... These guys who have not been in it are learning. You're going to be able to take a lot from that."
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