- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2017

It seems an impossible lean with an improbable angle at full speed. John Wall had just spun himself in a circle to avoid multiple defenders during an early third quarter sprint into the lane. By the time he was done revolving, Wall was tilted onto one leg in the paint, surrounded by Atlanta defenders and gathering the might to zip the ball out toward the 3-point line where Otto Porter stood free and available.

Much of Porter’s future wealth has been determined by these types of passes from Wall. Wide open, he pointed his feet, raised his elbow and released the 3-pointer. After it went through the net Washington had regained the lead. Wall’s takeover of the day was underway.

His blitz lasted another 10 minutes. Wall replaced the ugliness of the first half with artistry in the third quarter during Washington’s 114-107 Game 1 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday afternoon in Verizon Center. He redefined the game in those 12 minutes when he scored 15 of his postseason-career-high 32 points, provided four assists and even collected three rebounds. At one point during his undressing of the Hawks to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, Wall pointed toward the floor while the crowd bellowed.

“This is my house,” Wall said then and later.

It has become just that in the last four years. Wall has been to the All-Star Game each season, and each year he is the team’s lone representative. Following two offseason knee surgeries last summer, Wall has put together his best season since entering the league as a dancing No. 1 overall pick in 2010. Everything is better. His scoring has improved, his understanding of defenses has grown, even his press conferences are smoother since he has slowed his diction.

At the postgame podium Sunday, he sat in a folding chair with his always-on-him black sunglasses tucked in a pocket. He looked like a member of the kids’ table — were that kid wearing a vested suit — at a holiday gathering since the low chairs shrunk his frame. But it was clear who was running the operation. Departures of veterans and growth of his own into that label now make the Wizards Wall’s show more than ever. It was evident Sunday.

“I take over the game in different ways,” Wall said. “I think that’s what makes a great player.”

Asked to consider how Wall “kind of” took over the third quarter, Washington coach Scott Brooks asked a question back.

“Kind of?” Brooks said. “Does he have to have 25 to say he took over a quarter?”

This was a turnabout for Wall against Atlanta. He shot just 32.9 percent against the Hawks in four games this season. In this series, he’s trying to vanquish those woes and the irritation he still carries from losing to the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2015. A late fall in Game 1 of that series caused five non-displaced fractures in Wall’s left hand. He missed three games. Eventually, the Wizards were sent out of the playoffs in six.

Wall’s work Sunday undid a brutish first half. The Wizards fouled and missed and fouled and missed. Bradley Beal made three field goals and committed two fouls in the half. Atlanta shot 22 free throws thanks to Washington’s hyperactivity turning into chopping and clobbering. Both teams shot an eye-covering 33.3 percent from the field. When the first two quarters were over, Markieff Morris and Atlanta All-Star Paul Millsap yelled at each other. Morris grinned slightly when explaining later that he told Millsap to “shut up” before the half ended with Atlanta in front by three points. Millsap demurred.

“Just two guys playing hard,” he said.

Millsap and Morris had a daylong tussle. Morris was playing in his first playoff game. Sunday marked a full season for Millsap in the playoffs; it was his 82nd postseason game. He was left to grouse afterward because Morris’ size and ambition caused him problems, leading to the Hawks‘ best player being outplayed by one of Washington’s role players.

“I jumped in head first,” Morris said. “I was tired, I know that much. Like I said, the intensity was sky-high. I’m always a relaxed guy, so it’s just playing in the moment, staying in the moment, and giving everything I’ve got until the clock hits zero.”

Brooks had wondered about the Wizards’ spirit as the season wound down. Since the All-Star break, they had not been the same group that powered through December and January to change their label in the Eastern Conference from travesty to contender. But, he said engagement showed again in the final two games of the season, even with Wall and others taking time to rest small injuries. Locked-in film sessions and practices followed, setting up Sunday’s opener.

“I knew we were back,” Brooks said.

For a day, they were.

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