The Washington Wizards wanted to avoid a slip-up the night after an emotional win, but the challenge was much greater on Saturday because the court at Verizon Center – which was hastily assembled after an afternoon NHL game – had an ornery way of not cooperating.
Bradley Beal fell at least three times, including an ugly fall in which he caught a pass from John Wall in the left corner and slid out of bounds, using the basketball as a cushion to protect his face from hitting the floor. Wall took a spill after taking one step while attempting a drive to his right, and Trevor Ariza injured his left groin during a nasty tumble of his own.
“Everywhere was slippery, you were scared to make a move,” Wall said. “You saw guys fall and slide and it got worse and worse.”
But after surviving a slick and borderline dangerous surface that caused the home team to take several tumbles, the Wizards also had to overcome some extended mental lapses – including an inexplicable meltdown in the final minute – to defeat the Atlanta Hawks, 101-97.
John Wall scored a game-high 25 points, and five of his teammates also reached double figures even though the team handed out just 17 assists. The win lowered the Wizards’ magic number to clinch their first playoff berth in six years to one and secured the season series tiebreaker against the eighth-place Hawks. A New York Knicks loss to the Golden State Warriors on Sunday would secure the berth.
“If the Knicks lose, I’ll be more excited, then I’ll know I’m in the playoffs. Can’t count nothing,” Wall said. “We just trying to play basketball the right way, like we did the last two games and find a way to win. We had a bad stretch on the West Coast trip, came back and lost a game, but we got back on track. We’re just trying to stay that way.”
The Wizards (38-35) also took a three-game lead over the idle Charlotte Bobcats, their opponent Monday in a game that could a long way in helping Washington avoid sliding to seventh place and a first-round matchup against either conference-leading Indiana or two-time defending champion Miami.
Up 99-91 with a minute left, the Wizards decided to make sure those fans who stuck around got to witness some unnecessary drama as they committed several blunders down the stretch.
Marcin Gortat fouled Hawks reserve Louis Williams on a three-pointer, sending him to the foul line, where Williams made all three free throws. Wall then drew a foul while driving into the lane, but he missed both free throws and made the situation worse when he fouled Jeff Teague on a layup on the other end. Teague converted the layup and finished the three-point play to bring the Hawks within two. Wall tried to have a quick response as he broke down the defense again, jumped and found Gortat wide open under the basket. Gortat went up and front-rimmed a layup, giving the Hawks a chance to tie with 20 seconds remaining.
“We call this fatigue and just too relaxed,” Gortat said with a laugh after finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds. “I’m glad we won that game. Otherwise, I’d probably shoot myself at home.”
The Hawks were unable to capitalize, however, because Teague missed a reverse layup and Drew Gooden drew a foul after grabbing a rebound. Gooden (16 points, eight rebounds) made both free throws and the Wizards improved to 19-17 at home.
“There is not a bad win in this league,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “We will take the win. I am happy for them for that. We got to do better finishing games the last two minutes. That is the bottom line. We’ve got to do better.”
Playing a rare set of games on consecutive nights at home, the Wizards arrived at the arena following an impressive victory on Friday over the Pacers, which gave them a win over each Eastern Conference team for the first time since the 2007-08 season – the last time Washington reached the postseason. The injury-riddled Hawks were without two starters in DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Korver but still managed to take an early 10-point lead and stuck around for most of the game. Teague scored a team-high 19 points for the Hawks (31-41), who have gone 6-20 since Feb. 1.
The Hawks led 66-59 when all-star forward Paul Millsap made a free throw midway through the third quarter, but Wall scored 10 points during a 16-4 run later in the period to give the Wizards the lead for good. Wall also put a scare into the crowd and his teammates when former Wizard Cartier Martin tripped him while running up the court to catch an outlet pass.
After laying on his back for a few seconds, Wall got up, adjusted his socks and continued to go to work. He made a jumper to put the Wizards up 72-70, and Gortat blocked a layup attempt by Hawks reserve Mike Muscala on the other end. Wall then got the crowd to erupt when he knocked down a three-pointer. He confidently marched down the court, adjusting his tights as the crowd continued to applaud.
Andre Miller had 10 points and combined with Gooden to go 9 for 9 from the field. Beal, however, continued to struggle from the field, finishing with 14 points on 5-for-15 shooting – the 16th consecutive game that he failed to make at least half of his shots. The second-year shooting guard also led the team in sliding on the slippery floor, but his teammates weren’t laughing afterward.
“The floor was a little wet. Good thing nobody got seriously injured, but we got to work on that,” said Ariza, who injured his groin after slipping on the court. “Somebody could’ve really got hurt. We got to keep ourselves safe.”