John Wall woke up a sleepy Saturday night crowd, and the Wizards played like it was the dawn of a new season.
Three and a half months after he was sidelined with a stress injury in his left knee, the star third-year point guard made his season debut with an inspiring 14 points and four assists as the Wizards (6-28) toppled the Atlanta Hawks (21-15) with a 93-83 victory.
Washington's first two-game winning streak, which snapped a six-game skid against the Hawks, was secondary to the welcome and long-awaited return of the dust kicked up by Wall's breathtaking speed and dynamic all-around play.
"The kid hasn't lost a beat," Wizards forward Martell Webster said. "He's ferocious. I was telling him, 'Man, you kind of just got back. Why don't you just take it easy?' He's like, 'I don't know how to do that.' At first, I didn't know how to react to that. He doesn't know how to do that? The kid is bred to go."
The anticipation of Wall's return had built throughout the week, but applause from a quiet weekend crowd of 15,333 only started once Wall rose from the bench midway through the first quarter. It turned into a standing ovation when he replaced A.J. Price with 4:56 remaining in the period.
Wall picked up his first defensive rebound a short time later. As he started to shake off the rust and find his legs, he got to line four times, shaking his head on the second trip after missing the finish on a pretty move.
"I was nervous seeing how I would feel," Wall said, "and how I would go throughout a game, just only going through practice. My homeboys slash brothers at home was joking, happy the whole day, and I'm just trying to stay calm and take a nap."
A fast break at the end of the period hinted at what has been missing for so long when a streaking Wall found rookie Bradley Beal behind him for a soaring one-handed slam dunk and a 27-17 lead.
"That's just having fun," Beal said. "Getting out on the break. It shows what this team and can do and how fast it can go. He's really going to push the ball up the court, and he's always going to find somebody open."
Led by 16 points from Beal and Price along with 15 points from Webster, the Wizards lost the lead, going down by as many as eight points, but gained it back before halftime and never trailed in the final two quarters. It was a timely demonstration of improvement that had already begun in recent games. Nene and Emeka Okafor had 10 rebounds apiece. Trevor Ariza (nine rebounds) locked down Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver, who had just five points.
Wall took the ball in his hands, drove, forced contact and completed a three-point play to end the third quarter, But it was over the game's final 6:20 that he announced that his arrival was something more, scoring six of the Wizards' final 10 points and commanding the game like the seasoned player he had been waiting to show he had become.
"He's been looking forward to this since the end of last year, of this day, not expecting it was going to be January 12," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said.
Wall blew by Jeff Teague (19 points) without hesitation to get to the rim, then turned the corner and finished a reverse layup on back-to-back possessions. He put the game away with a left-handed behind-the-back pass to Ariza for a fast-break dunk.
Instead of hesitation or discomfort in his left knee, Wall told anyone within earshot, "I'm back."
"That's what I was saying the whole time," Wall said. "To anybody. I was just happy to be playing basketball, so anybody that was in my way, that's what I was saying."
He gave a salute to the crowd at the final whistle to match a similar gesture when he had first entered the game. He finished with 21 minutes on the court and expects to continue to be limited over the coming week. But the patience that the Wizards have to show will be balanced by the anticipation of a team that might be able play to its potential for the second half of the season.
"It's still the same year but definitely new life for us," Price said. "A sense of new breath tonight. It's not a new season, but in a way it kind of feels like it because we're finally at full strength and we know what we're able to do."