The release was hardly smooth as Paul Pierce leaned and faded to avoid two Atlanta Hawks players lunging at him. The landing even clumsier, as Pierce backpedaled and stumbled to his backside. The shot dented the glass but when it went through the net, and Pierce raised his arms to the ceiling, there couldn’t have been a more beautiful moment for a Washington Wizards postseason that continues to confound and captivate.
Bradley Beal gave Pierce the ball above the foul line, with Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder crowding, but Beal wasn’t quite sure about what would happen next. Beal said to himself, “Eh, is that a good shot?”
Pierce looked like he was down for the count after calling “game” on a 103-101 victory Saturday at Verizon Center. But Beal provided the celebratory knockout in the form of a rapid flurry of punches from the team’s youngest player to the fourth-oldest player still left in the playoffs.
“I know his chest probably hurt, I hit him in the chest about 10 times,” Beal said.
The rest of the team crowded Pierce, including the injured John Wall, who hopped up and down with his jubilant teammates with his left hand heavily wrapped and covered by a soft cast. The Wizards’ chances of beating the Hawks were diminished when Wall suffered five non-displaced fractures in his left hand and wrist, but they have never counted themselves out. T-shirts with the words, “Why Not Us?” greeted players in the locker room upon their return from Atlanta, as a slogan Pierce coined in the preseason and Coach Randy Wittman repeated in Atlanta. It has suddenly become the mantra.
In winning the franchise’s first home conference semifinal game since 1979, the Wizards displayed how they are going to have to win games without Wall. By Otto Porter Jr. continuing to prove himself worthy of a high lottery pick. By Beal maturing into a wise-beyond-his-years player. By Nene being resurrected. By Will Bynum getting rescued from China to rescuing his new team in a pinch. And by Pierce – who will forever belong to Boston – continuing his fantasy ride in Washington.
The Wizards didn’t play the perfect game against the Hawks, but they were pretty close through the first 40 minutes as they built a 20-point lead. But as evidence of the miniscule margin for error for this team without its best player, the Wizards let that lead vanish, and doubt crept in for a stunned home crowd. Pierce spared them from embarrassment and raised the belief within the locker room that the Wizards are better, with or without Wall.
“They thought we couldn’t win without John,” Beal said of the Hawks. “We have no other choice. We can sit here and make excuses and say, ‘John’s not playing.’ Or we can go out there and prove people wrong. It’s great. We have so much depth on this team. We would love to have John, but he’s not with us.”
Wall hasn’t been officially been ruled out for the rest of the playoffs, but the Wizards are proceeding as if they won’t have him back. Yet each win provides a little more time, a little more hope for the ultra-competitive Wall to attempt a miraculous comeback – whether that is near the conclusion of this series, or even the next round against either Chicago or Cleveland. If Wall isn’t able to return, the Wizards are at least building an encouraging future.
It’s time to accept that this isn’t some fluky run for Porter. Through seven games, Porter has had plenty of time to become a defensive nuisance, as he has harassed a former all-star in DeMar DeRozan and a current all-star in Kyle Korver.
Porter has been so lively – fighting for rebounds despite his lithe frame, making plays for others despite limited touches – that Wittman can’t take him off the floor. And he has now aggressively been a reliable option by hitting open three-pointers and cutting to the basket for easy buckets. He tied with Beal and Nene for the team lead with 17 points on Saturday, which was a playoff career-high for Porter.
Porter is exuding confidence with each minute he’s on the floor. He even let out some rare emotion after taking a pass from Beal and throwing down a ferocious one-handed dunk that gave the Wizards a 17-point lead. It didn’t take much for him to quickly become a fan favorite, with his Georgetown pedigree and familiarity with the area already setting him up to succeed. Early in the third quarter – with fans chanting his name for the umpteenth time – Wizards assistant Don Zierden told Porter, “You hear them cheering for you? Put on a show, man.”
When asked what it meant to be flooded by cheers from fans who had to wait through a lost rookie campaign and an up-and-down sophomore campaign for last year’s third overall pick to start showing a pulse on the court, Porter shrugged and said, “I played in the arena, so I know what it feels like.”
At the same time that Porter was shining in college, Beal was welcomed to the NBA, facing the difficult challenge of trying to win games as a rookie with Wall sidelined with a stress injury in his left knee. Through that stressful, sometimes tearful, opening 33-game stretch, Beal was tested and forced to grow up sooner than the Wizards had hoped as they won just five games. Back in a similar position without Wall in his third season, but at much higher stakes in the postseason, Beal is also a much better player and better equipped to handle the responsibilities as a leader and playmaker.
In addition to hitting the pull-up jumper that ended the Hawks’ 17-0 fourth-quarter run, Beal was equal parts setup man and showman. Beal handed out a team-high eight assists and managed to keep his cool after Hawks guard Jeff Teague clobbered him in the head on a fastbreak layup that forced him to have a nasty collision with the basket stanchion. Already battling through a sore right ankle, Beal propped up and smiled and didn’t want to dwell on Teague’s flagrant foul afterward.
“It was dangerous. I hit the back of the pad, but I got up. It was a messed-up play, but we won, that’s all that matters,” Beal said.
Nene had been marginalized through the first six games with Wittman committed to a successful small-ball lineup that had been incredibly effective. Confused about his limited role and short on confidence after going a combined 0-for-9 in Atlanta, Nene was once again a physical, focal point offensively and he responded by scoring eight points in the first quarter, driving to the basket for layups and showing off his midrange game. Nene rediscovered his grimy game as he slapped a Teague layup attempt off the glass and manhandled Paul Millsap for a loose ball.
“That’s as aggressive as he has been since the playoffs started,” Wittman said.
Bynum was on the other side of the globe two months ago, nursing a hamstring injury in China and hoping an NBA team would give him a chance. But there he was scoring six of his nine points in the fourth quarter, including two huge free throws with 22.1 seconds remaining to put the Wizards ahead, 101-98.
Then, after Hawks reserve Mike Muscala tied the game with a wide-open three-pointer, Wittman called a play for Pierce. The 17-year veteran once again proved why he was brought to Washington, why he is called the Truth and why his future Hall of Fame career has been littered with those last-second buzzer-beaters kids play out in their backyards.
Though he had his initial doubts about whether Pierce had a good look, Beal realized the error in his thinking. Asked afterward if the shot confirmed anything he already knew about Pierce, Beal responded, “What’s his nickname again? That’s your answer.”