In eight minutes, the Washington Wizards went from jubilation to devastation, from believing they could upset the top seed in the Eastern Conference to grappling with the harsh realization that a season of incredible growth and promise was somehow coming to an end.
Coach Randy Wittman pulled John Wall and Bradley Beal for the final time with 39 seconds remaining in the Wizards’ 93-80 loss to the Indiana Pacers and the young back-court mates both had a difficult time coming to grips with their first playoff series defeat — a rite of passage for every NBA player, especially those with aspirations for greatness.
Wall lowered his head as he slapped five with his teammates, unable to make eye contact. Beal was much more emotional as he hunched over, struggling to stand as he buried his face under his jersey and later a towel as assistant coach Sam Cassell and Nene took turns consoling him.
“This loss hurts more than anything, just knowing it all came to an end,” Beal said after scoring 16 points. “But at the same time, nobody thought we’d make it this far. And for us to actually make it here and for us to believe in ourselves and make Indiana earn it, we should be proud of ourselves. There’s nothing we should hang our head about.”
The fans at Verizon Center wouldn’t let them. With the Wizards down 14 in the final minute, the crowd stood during a timeout to applaud and chant, “Let’s go, Wizards!” It was a small gesture of appreciation for the franchise’s first postseason appearance in six years, its first playoff series win in nine years and its first victory in the second round in 32 years. Indiana claimed the best-of-seven series, four games to two, but the Wizards got the attention of the Pacers and the rest of the league by shedding their inconsistency during the regular season.
“A lot of teams respect us now,” Wall said after scoring 12 points with nine assists . “We definitely didn’t want it to end. We didn’t want it to end at home in front of those great fans and it was tough. It was a tough pill to take, but we just keep our heads up.”
The second-round defeat sent the Wizards into an offseason of the unknown, with unanswered questions about whether Wittman and many of the eight free agents on the roster — including starters Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza — would be back. But none of them could focus much on the future when the pain of the present was hard to accept.
The Wizards felt the series very easily could’ve gone their way with better execution and a little more resolve. They faced an opponent that entered the season with a greater purpose, had been together longer and was focused on getting back to the conference finals for a rematch with the Miami Heat.
When he addressed his team for the final time, Wittman was overcome with emotion as he looked into the watery eyes of 15 players who let him push them, coddle them, and sometimes cajole them during a season in which Washington surpassed the modest goal of simply reaching the playoffs. Wall and Beal also were choked up as they looked around, unsure about whether the magic of this season, on a team with impeccable chemistry, could be duplicated.
“We have a bunch of guys in there that are really disappointed,” Wittman said. “I think we all felt that we had an opportunity to do more than we did and that is a good feeling for those guys. They are hurt in there and when you are hurt, that means you care and I could not be more proud of a group of guys than I am of those guys. They gave me their heart and soul this year.”
The season looked as if it would keep going with 8 minutes 30 seconds left to play. Then, Beal whirled around a screen, pulled up at the top of the key and buried a three-pointer to give the Wizards a 74-73 lead. It completed a climb from a 16-point deficit and the red-white-and-blue clad fans erupted.
But just as the energy returned to the building, the plug was quickly pulled by turnovers and deflating baskets by the determined Pacers. Veteran forward David West (29 points ) answered Beal’s three-pointer with a step back jumper as Indiana put the Wizards away with a series closing 20-6 run. The Pacers won for the third time in as many games at Verizon Center in the series.
The Washington franchise still hasn’t won a second-round game at home since 1979, a stretch that was extended to 0-7 Thursday . Gortat scored a team-high 19 points after joking before the game he wished the Wizards had played Game 6 on the road, where they went 5-1 in the postseason. After the team finished 1-4 at home, Gortat was searching for answers.
“I don’t know, quite honestly,” Gortat said. “Maybe we have to be in the hotel and have a team breakfast in the morning and take two buses from the hotel to the game. I don’t know.”
The Pacers have been procrastinators all season. They waited until the last week of the regular season to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They didn’t beat the Atlanta Hawks until after they fell behind 3-2 in the series. They got pounded in a closeout game at home in Game 5, with the Wizards recording their most lopsided road win in franchise history, and looked quite vulnerable as they arrived in Washington.
West was disappointed by the Pacers’ effort on Tuesday, believing his teammates thought the Wizards were just going to roll over with their season on the line. But West made sure that the Pacers came out as the more desperate team. Beal made a three-pointer to give Washington the lead and, for 15 seconds, all was right for the Wizards. But in a flash, in the flick of West’s wrist, it was over.