This again? Another Game 6 playoff loss at home? Again? Weren’t they past this? This typical night, a night of hope smashed in the District by under-performing stars. A night of ramming straight into the proverbial hump only to be knocked on their behind. Not this again. Right?
It looked like it. The Wizards were down five points with 1:34 to play in an elimination game. John Wall and Bradley Beal had led this group into such a spot twice before. They lost at home in Game 6 in 2014 and 2015. Just ahead in 94 seconds was a third Game 6 loss in as many playoff appearances. Seeping in was that feeling of being anchored by concrete shoes when in pursuit of progress.
Not this night. A broken final play produced glory not ache. Wall made a pull-up 3-pointer with Avery Bradley lurking just in front of him. Isaiah Thomas’ final, deep 3-pointer hit the rim — “I thought it was going in,” he said later — and Wall ran in circles. First toward fans, then around other people until he finally decided the scorer’s table was the proper destination. He jumped on top of it, pointed downward vigorously with both index fingers and basked in the sounds. A 3-pointer, such a rare commodity for Washington all night, had forced a Game 7 in Boston to finally settle the head-knocking dispute that the Eastern Conference semifinals has turned into. The shot turned a lurching game that felt like yesterday into a tomorrow by the narrowest margin, 92-91.
Beal sat next to Wall at their postgame press conference in a khaki sweatshirt that said “Life” on it. Washington has its basketball version remaining for at least one more game after becoming the first home team this postseason to survive an elimination game on its floor. The rest were 0-10.
That there will be one more fits. Boston and Washington view each other with what counts as disdain in modern basketball. The Celtics came to Verizon Center dressed in all black before the game, putting a twist on what the Wizards had done in January for a game against the Celtics with much lower stakes. There was no “funeral” Friday night. Instead, what has been expected, a seven-game tussle, was given full passage.
“It’s got to go seven,” Beal said.
“It’s only right,” Wall said.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks made a decision when the game had reached its most dire point: blitz Thomas after he made back-to-back shots. The choice led to a turnover, then what had been such an unlikely event all night: Beal making a 3-pointer, his only in eight tries.
“That kept us in the game,” Wall said.
Beal is shooting an arctic 26.3 percent from behind the 3-point line in the series. The team went 5-for-24 on the night. But, three of the five were made in the final 3:45 of the game. Beal, who scored 33 points and was 14-for-18 from 2-point range, groaned when asked about the location of his 3-point shooting ability.
“I don’t know what’s going with the three-ball right now,” Beal said.
Wall blocked Thomas’ next shot, then made two free throws. Washington was all the way back from a five-point deficit and weekend of misery. Bradley, again an unexpected dynamic scorer, made a jump shot. Beal drove and scored. A growing specter from last summer, Al Horford, banked in a midrange shot. He had turned down the Wizards’ money and took Boston‘s. His shot put Washington’s season on edge.
Just 7.7 seconds remained. Otto Porter worked his usual role as in-bounder. Wall was supposed to fade to the corner. Beal was trying to get loose from burly Marcus Smart. He couldn’t. As the referee’s five count crept toward a turnover, Wall came to get the ball. He took two dribbles, stepped toward Bradley and shot a 3-pointer.
This is not the shot that has made Wall a four-time All-Star. It’s not the reason he was drafted No. 1 overall. It is a chance that an opponent will live with, almost want, almost dare him to take. Wall works on it at the end of practice, moving clockwise spot to spot around the 3-point line on the practice court. When he gets hot, he begins to trash talk coaches. He also has a tendency to look up at those watching — media, team brass, random visitors — to see if they are taking note of his success.
Friday, he walked into a final attempt. It went in with 3.5 seconds to play.
Thomas’ final attempt did not.
“I’m enjoying the moment right now,” Wall said. “After tonight, I’m locked back in for Game 7. It’s a big shot. I’m glad we got an opportunity to play for one more game. What we asked for. Anything can happen.”
The end-game tension unwound a garish first three quarters. Neither team shot well. Neither went on the storming runs this series has become known for. The best thing Boston coach Brad Stevens could say after the game about the first 36 minutes was that both teams played hard.
Wall and Beal hugged on the floor once Wall was done talking to a sideline reporter. Backup center Ian Mahinmi had just walked off slapping the hands of fans, yelling, “One more!”
When the end of this season comes, it won’t be put in the same box as Wall and Beal’s first two playoff appearances. Those are now past nights of anguish. Game 6 in 2017 was survived, by the slimmest margin. Game 7, and significant progress, looms.
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