ATLANTA -- Sure, Atlanta won the game, 99-95. But absolutely nobody left the gym tonight talking about the Hawks.
Instead it was Washington rookie John Wall who drew raves from all sides. In just his second pro game, the Wizards' point guard flew to the hoop at will while scoring 28 points and adding nine assists in a valiant losing effort. While the Wizards lost, Wall's brilliance kept Washington in the game for much longer than anyone expected.
He was at his best when it mattered most. Wall scored a dozen straight points to tie the game at 80 at the end of the third quarter, but the Wizards fell behind by nine points again when Wall went to the bench for a three-and-a-half minute rest to begin the fourth.
Not for long. Wall checked back in and rallied the Wizards almost immediately, draining two jumpers and then making two brilliant hit-ahead passes for layups to tie the game at 84 with 4:44 left. The Hawks then scored on five straight trips to put the game away, but only after Wall hit two 3s and narrowly missed a third with 38.9 seconds left that would have cut the lead to two.
Let's just say the locals were impressed.
"That is one fast human being," said Hawks coach Larry Drew, who could only compare him speed-wise to former Utah Jazz speedster Rickey Green.
"But," he added, "John may be faster. And he's powerful, he's got size."
As impressive as the numbers were, the visuals were better. Wall's speed created huge challenges for the defense, as the Hawks' guards had to concede the jumper to him yet still had trouble containing his penetration. He was unselfish, competitive, and he shot better than advertised. Once he learns how to attack the rim at this level -- i.e., not trying to shoot directly over Dwight Howard or Josh Smith -- he'll be lethal.
"He's a pretty composed kid," said Drew. "The game plan was to encourage him to shoot with a hand in his face. Tonight he made them."
The Wizards might have pulled the game out, actually, had they been able to set a legal screen for Wall on the pick-and-roll. Alas, Washington was whistled eight times for the violation, including five in a miserable 13-point second quarter that wasted a solid start. This is a new point of emphasis for NBA officials league-wide and the guilt was widespread for Washington -- Hilton Armstrong, JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche had two apiece, Al Thornton one, and Wall himself was tagged once.
Nonetheless, Wall's immediate impact is great news for a rebuilding Washington club. Alas, good news can never just be good in D.C. these days, and in this case Wall's emergence opens its own can of worms. Gilbert Arenas is expected to return for Tuesday's home opener, and we all know how much Gilbert likes having the ball in his hands.
But after tonight, how could the Wizards take the rock away from Wall? Unless Arenas is more willing to play off the ball than his recent passive-aggressive comments indicate, Wall's impressive play may just speed up the timeline for the inevitable Alpha-male showdown in D.C.