There are two seasons: there is the regular season and there is the playoff season. One is as different from the other as winter is to spring. In the regular season the young guys are on display. Twenty year old’s cut and slice to the basket, finish at the rim, push the ball at a rapid pace. But in the playoffs when the game slows down and great defensive coaches have a week to expose a player’s weakness, youth suddenly is an enemy. John Wall and Bradley Beal are finding out this particularly brutal lesson.
Wall and Beal are the youngest backcourt duo in the playoffs. One is 23 years old. The other is 20 years old. They have 6 years combined NBA experience. They have played 9 playoff games in their career, all played this year. While it is true that this current era of NBA basketball is guard oriented and guard rich, in the playoffs experience is what wins. In their series against the Pacers, it has been the inexperience of the young Wizards guards that has been the difference between the Wizards leading the Pacers 3-1 and the Wizards trailing the Pacers 1-3.
John Wall, the first pick in the 2010 draft toiled in obscurity for 4 miserable seasons, some of them injury prone, until this year. The Wizards won 44 games. John averaged 19 points and 9 assists. He improved in every category. His assists and three point field goal percentage were career highs. In half of his games he scored 20+ points. In 32 games he had 10+ assists. In 59 games he had at least one steal. At Golden State in January, a Wall three gave the Wizards the lead, one they would not relinquish. At Orlando in March, he hit a shot in overtime to preserve a Wizards road win. But in shots from 3-10 feet Wall shot a ghastly 23%.
Bradley Beal, the third pick in the 2012 draft, entered the NBA as the best shooter despite the fact he only was in college for one year. In his second year he has lived up to the expectations, at least on distance shots. He puts in 40% of his threes. But his two point shot is inconsistent and still needs a lot of work. He shoots 38% on shoots 3-10 feet. But he is an unselfish player willing to give the ball up to get the ball back. In the regular season he made clutch shots in Madison Square Garden. In January he hit a three with forty five seconds left to break a tie. Then with seven seconds left his layup sealed the victory. In April he hit the game winner with twenty eight seconds left which crushed the Knicks who were trying to make a playoff push.
In Game 2 in their series against the Pacers, the Wizards were leading with five minutes left, up by 3 after a Bradley Beal shot. Then the young guards panicked. John Wall took a three and missed. It was still a tight game. Bradley Beal took a three and missed. John Wall missed another three. The lead was still manageable, the Pacers were up by three. But the Wizards killed whatever chance they had by jacking up bad shots. John Wall had a layup blocked. By the time Bradley Beal made his first shot (in the last five minutes) the game had already been decided.
In Game 4 of their playoff series against the Pacers, on Mothers Day, the Wizards controlled the first half of the game and then the Pacers defense controlled the second half. The Paers bet on the fact that when the game got close the Wizards would self destruct which of course is what they did. With four minutes left, John Wall made a three giving the Wizards a six point lead. A minute later he missed a free throw. Two minutes later he missed a layup as he tried to maneuver through traffic and a foul was not called. With less than a minute left, Bradley Beal badly missed a perimeter shot. With nine second left, he missed a free throw. Then the final nail in the coffin: Trevor Ariza’s horrible inbound pass that the Pacers intercepted.
John Wall and Bradley Beal were in college one year. What they asked of the NBA was: develop me. Paul George, the Pacers star, was in the same draft as John Wall, selected #10. But he was at Fresno State for two years, not one. He has been in the playoffs every year since he entered the league. He has played in 46 playoff games. So it wasn’t a surprise that down the stretch he was the one the Pacers leaned on to assure the victory.
But the first time Paul George was in the playoffs, when he was a rookie, he was eliminated in 5 games and never made it past the first round. His second year he did not make it past the second round. Such is the cruel truth of the NBA playoffs and young players. Failure comes first.
17 years ago today Kobe Bryant played in game 5. It was a second round playoff game. His team was down 3-1. He faced a Utah Jazz team with Karl Malone and John Stockton. Kobe was terrible in that game, he shot 28%. He missed 10 of the 14 shots he took. He airballed several three pointers in a close game and the Lakers went down to defeat. But unlike John Wall, Kobe in 1997, was not an All Star. Unlike Bradley Beal, he was not a starter. Kobe was a rookie. All it shows is that the NBA teaches young players that winning in the playoffs is different than winning in the regular season. The Lakers team of 1996-97 won 56 games but could only win one game in the second round. Kobe had to learn how to win. It is a lesson John Wall and Bradley Beal are also learning albeit the hard way.