John Wall has been presented with a unique opportunity in Wednesday night’s Game 5 at Boston’s TD Garden, where he will lead the Washington Wizards in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal against the Celtics. After years of feeling overlooked and underappreciated, Wall has a chance — one fully within his control — to change that for good.
Win Game 5, on the road against a fellow All-Star point guard in Isaiah Thomas, and then win Game 6 on Friday night in Washington, and everything Wall has ever wanted will lie before him: the respect of the public and his peers; a bidding war for his next shoe contract; and, most important, a chance to take on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, in a round the Wizards haven’t been in since 1979.
Throughout his career, the former University of Kentucky star has been frustrated by a perceived lack of respect from various quarters. From the fans who have passed him over in all-star voting. From the referees who routinely don’t give him more favorable calls. From companies that left him without a shoe deal after his signature shoe deal with Reebok fell flat.
After missing the playoffs last season, then undergoing surgeries on both knees, Wall has been on a mission to prove his doubters wrong. The results — his best season to date. He’s averaged career highs in points (23.1), assists (10.7), steals (2.0), field goal percentage (45.1) and free throws made (5.4) and attempted (6.8). He is a virtual shoo-in to make his first all-NBA team when it is announced over the next few weeks.
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But for all of his prodigious talent, Wall still doesn’t have the kind of profile enjoyed by many of his contemporaries in this golden age of point guards. Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Thomas far outstrip Wall in name recognition, shoe deals and commercial appearances.
Many within the game sympathize with Wall. A quick poll of several scouts and league executives came back with a universal opinion: Wall still is underrated in the eyes of the average fan. But even Wall would be the first to say that winning in the playoffs is the first, and best, way to change his situation. And that’s what makes Wednesday’s game such a pivotal one for him.
At 26, Wall has entered the prime of his career. The numbers he’s putting up this postseason — 28.8 points, 11.1 assists, 2.2 steals on 47.7 percent shooting overall and 35.6 percent from three-point range — bear that out.
The knee surgeries brought back some of the explosiveness he had lost. The play he made in Game 4 of Washington’s first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks — a scintillating end-to-end rush with the ball that Wall finished by going around his back and flushing a dunk home with his left hand — is arguably the highlight of the playoffs, and a sign of how terrifying he can be in the open court.
All of it will be for naught, though, if Wall can’t lead the Wizards to wins over the Celtics in two of the next three games. While Boston is the top seed and has home-court advantage, the Wizards have controlled each of the past three games; they allowed the Celtics to make a late comeback to win Game 2 in overtime in Boston before routing them at Verizon Center in Games 3 and 4. Washington is generally considered to have the better top-end talent — as proven by the starting five’s plus-75 mark in 69 minutes through the first four games.
But it’s impossible to forget what happened late in Game 2, when Thomas scored 27 points in the fourth quarter and overtime while Wall, who with a terrific line of his own — 40 points and 13 assists — missed a late free throw and a potential game-winning shot in the dying moments of regulation.
These are moments for which Wall has pined — a chance to make the kind of name for himself that he feels he deserves. He has it now, in what without question is the most important game this franchise has played since the 1970s, on his biggest stage yet. He gets to walk into a building that over the years has been the site of one incredible performance after another — and attempt to put on one of his own.