Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that the Bullets came back from a 3-1 series deficit in 1978. The team actually accomplished this in 1979.
John Wall was wide open at the three-point line, the Verizon Center crowd screaming for him to shoot, his teammates joining the chorus on the bench. Wall hesitated, pulled back and passed. With another chance to tie, Trevor Ariza tossed a wild inbounds pass out of the reach of Bradley Beal, putting the second-year shooting guard on a foot race for the ball that he eventually lost to Indiana Pacers forward Paul George.
The Washington Wizards had been a steady, confident bunch for most of this postseason, but in losing a 19-point lead Sunday night in a muddy puddle of terrible shots, nervous passes and shoddy defense, they went from feeling shocked to unsure to ultimately dejected. Unraveling in front of a stunned sellout audience, the Wizards were finally left with a devastating 95-92 loss to the Indiana Pacers in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series. Washington’s biggest meltdown of the season left it trailing three games to one in the best-of-seven series, one loss from having its season end.
“It’s tough. We really did put ourselves in position to win,” veteran forward Al Harrington said after the game. “We felt we were in position where we could control this series. We’ve given that up that this point. We’re in a tough spot.”
In what might be their last home game of the season, the upstart Wizards crumbled as George and former Georgetown star Roy Hibbert teamed up to crush the spirits of 15 players and 20,356 fans. George led all players with 39 points, 28 in the second half, and 12 rebounds.
Only eight of the 194 teams that have fallen behind 3-1 have come back to advance to the next round. Washington rallied from such a deficit in 1979, when the Bullets came back to defeat the San Antonio Spurs in the Eastern Conference finals on the way to the franchise’s last NBA Finals trip.
“Already in this playoffs, we’ve proven we can win three games in a row,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “We did it against Chicago, winning three games in a row. We’ve got to take it one game at a time. We’ve got to go back to Indy, we’ve got to worry about one game and then we’ll worry about Game 6 after Game 5. Three of the four games have been a dogfight. We’re in the fight, now we just got to win that fight.”
Mostly untested in their first-round series against Chicago, the Wizards are now one game from elimination against a Pacers team that has won five of its past six playoff games after starting out 2-3. The Wizards had 18 fast-break points in the first half but had none in the second half, when Indiana outscored them, 57-37.
Hibbert finished with 17 points and nine rebounds and made Wizards center Marcin Gortat so ineffective that Wittman didn’t use him in the fourth quarter.
Beal scored a team-high 20 points but only had three in the fourth quarter, as George was stellar on both ends of the floor and resembled the player who was in the conversation for league MVP in the early part of the season.
Wall had been waiting for a breakout game in this series, but he continued to be stifled by Pacers point guard George Hill, who limited his drives to the basket and sneakily reached in for steals or knocked the ball away from behind. Washington’s offense was more fluid with backup Andre Miller at the helm, as Wall mostly looked to drive and kick while the Pacers waited to disrupt or intercept his passes. Wall finished with just 12 points and seven assists.
His only highlight came at the end of the first half, when Nene blocked a George layup attempt. Wall grabbed the ball and took off for the races, whirling the ball around his waist to shake off Hill, switching the ball from right to left to juke Lance Stephenson, and then dropping in a layup as time expired. After putting his team ahead 55-38, giddy Wall rank down the court shouting, “Wooo!” Most in the arena did the same. The celebration was premature.
“I’ve been as aggressive as I can be,” Wall said. “It’s definitely tough and frustrating.”
With the Wizards entering Sunday’s game needing a victory not only to guarantee at least one more home game but also to keep a realistic hope of winning the series, Wittman called on a trio of aging veterans. Harrington, Miller and Drew Gooden combined to score 28 points and nearly rescued a team that had saved all three at some point.
When Miller (seven points, four assists) made two free throws to give the Wizards an 85-76 lead in the fourth quarter, fans chanted his name.
George silenced the crowd by hitting three-pointers on consecutive possessions and he put the Pacers ahead for good, 91-90, with two free throws. Hibbert followed with a jump hook over Nene to put his team ahead by three, and ran down the floor and held out his arms wide. Fans didn’t have the energy to boo, too stunned by what unfolded on the court.
Chances remained for the Wizards, but Beal missed a three-pointer after Wall passed up his open look, then Ariza and Beal failed to connect. The Wizards blew a double-digit lead for the 12th time this season.
“I wouldn’t say we were shaky. We just wanted to make the right play,” Beal said. “Could John have shot the shot? Yeah. The pass that me and Trev had, it happens. If I touched the ball, I should’ve caught it. At the end of the day . . . those plays didn’t really cost us the game. We were up 19, 20 at one point. We can’t give up a large deficit like that and end up letting them beat us.”
11 for 19
12 for 23
8 for 20
5 for 17