It has been a tough series for John Wall. This has come in part because, as odd as it seems, the Pacers were happy to see him.
After scrambling around to guard five perimeter shooters against the Hawks, Indiana was relieved to get back to its normal defensive schemes against the Wizards’ traditionally sized and skilled personnel — even if that included the tough task of stopping Wall from getting to the rim.
Wall has called himself the “head of the snake” for Washington’s offense, and the Pacers knew their success would depend on cutting off that head. Individually George Hill has done a great job to keep the speedy point guard in front of him, and when he has given ground, the team-wide scheme has allowed him to funnel Wall to a paint clogged by the waiting Roy Hibbert or Ian Mahinmi.
Frank Vogel couldn’t be happier with the results: Wall scored at the rim, out of a half-court set, only five times in the first four games.
Instead, Wall has been taking — and missing — jumpers.
In his first four games, 37 of his 51 shots came from outside of 8 feet. He is traditionally a poor shooter, but by hitting just 8 of those 37 shots, his accuracy has been even worse than expected. Even adding in his success on layups (his five in the half court and the three others he has created in transition), Wall made just 16-of-51 shots (31.4%), including a miserable 1-of-11 three-pointers (9.1%), as Washington fell down 3-1 in the series.
Here are all the midrange shots he took in Games 1 through 4:
It wasn’t just the shooting results that belied Wall’s approach.
He also turned the ball over a ton, recording 12 combined in Games 3 and 4, particularly because he was determined to dribble the ball into the paint. He continually coughed it up after he got into the lane, looking like an an ancient cavalry rider running his horse into a phalanx. His handle was poked away by the long arms of Hill and Paul George or his interior passes were sloppy.
Things changed in Game 5, however.
Wall stopped charging into the lane and learned to love open space.
He used his speed to find holes in the midrange and then embraced the idea that he would have to make these shots. In some respects, this just shows you that the NBA is a make or miss league. But though the shots he made in Game 5 were from the same places as the ones he had been missing all series, it was the way he approached them — with confidence and in rhythm — that showed his new mentality.
He wasn’t settling for the exact shots the Pacers wanted him to take. He was exploring new, soft spots in Indiana’s defense, namely the baseline, and taking spot-up opportunities when they appeared. Wall looked comfortable, and Indiana lost its ability to corral him into certain spots.
The difference made sound slight but it, well, made all the difference.
One way he got open for shots he wanted to take was by using ball screens very effectively.
Here, the Wizards set a nice double screen that freed up Wall for an open shot from the free-throw line. He had enough space and it set the tone for the rest of the game.
This floater, which Wall gets off a handoff, was another well-run action.
And here, Wall just uses a simple high screen to dribble into an open area and make a pull up.
Washington seemed to acquiesce the fact that the rim is closed for business for Wall. It instead went to options that freed up Wall to take longer shots in space.
He did some of the work himself, as well, forgoing the interior and instead looking to the baseline.
He still might not be able to get all the way to the cup from there but Indiana’s big rim protectors are often slower to recognize attacks from the flank, so it leaves open space from which to shoot.
It wasn’t just a strategy that got shots for Wall, who was 3-for-3 from the baseline.
By dribbling towards the endline, he forced rotations that also allowed passes for open looks. Nene is the beneficiary in this instance.
In addition to his off-the-dribble focus on finding the soft spots, Wall also was an eager spot-up shooter.
He hit 3 triples in the game, and one easy stat shows the change in approach: 6 of his 11 makes in Game 5 were assisted while just 2 of his 16 buckets in Games 1 through 4 were.
Twice in Game 5, the Pacers completely lost Wall behind the arc.
Earlier in the series, he was criticized for not taking what would have been an open 3. But on Tuesday night, he didn’t hesitate to launch, helping to turn what was a healthy lead into a blowout.
Look at how confidently he squared up for these two treys when left open.
Obviously, the offensive rebounding of guys like Marcin Gortat, Drew Gooden, and Trevor Ariza had a lot to do the Wizards Game 5 victory. But lost in that story was John Wall’s improved approach against an Indiana defense that had confounded him for the first four games of the series.
Was this better approach too little too late? Or will Wall be able to embrace the jumper and continue to knock down enough shots in Game 6 to extend the series again?
In a make-or-miss league, it’s anyone’s guess.
But his willingness to change his approach is an encouraging sign for the Wizards’ future.