The series — and likely the season — was on John Wall’s fingertips. He stood behind the arc with less than a minute left, on the right wing in front of his bench, a clear look at the rim, his team down by three points. And he didn’t want to take the shot.
For all his miscues and caroms off the back iron this postseason, his lost stroke, the crowd was still exhorting him on. Shoot! Shoot!
He froze. There would be no all-net, all-even, best two-of-three going back to Indiana.
“I told him to shoot, but I guess he saw something else — [Bradley Beal] coming open on the other side,” Al Harrington said after the Wizards’ most wrenching loss of the season, a 95-92 defeat that put Washington on the edge of losing the Eastern Conference semifinal series in five games.
Did Wall feel there was too much time on the shot clock, 22 seconds remaining after the ball had been inbounded? No. Did he think Beal was a better option, even though Beal missed from deep and didn’t have the space Wall had?
“The play was for Brad,” Wall began, “so I felt I made the right decision in that moment.”
Still, his desire to change the game with one series-turning bomb was gone in that moment, his hunger to take the big shot nonexistent after so much failure from the perimeter.
Someone else was a better alternative, the franchise’s first all-star since the Gilbert Arenas era figured.
In all the postmortems of how the Wizards lost their grip on this series, the main thread going forward has to be the brutal growing pains of Wall in the postseason.
They are down 3-1 in this best-of seven second round after Sunday’s mother of a Game 4 loss. They are down to their last game because their point guard could not close the deal to knot the series at 2.
Nene said afterward he “knows the truth, but I cannot say the truth” of why the Wizards lost, so I’ll translate for him to save the Brazilian center some money: It was believed that a Joey Crawford-led officiating crew would not give the home team more no-harm, no-foul, no-ambulance calls in the final physical three minutes, which even Wall alluded to in his postgame comments.
But something much bigger than a referee not blowing his whistle is afoot when the Wizards give back a 19-point lead in the second half, including the final nine points in the last seven minutes — just when Wall returned to close it out for Andre Miller, Drew Gooden and Al Harrington, who thought they left the game having put the final nail in Game 4.
Something lingering in the back court.
“It’s a process,” Randy Wittman said of Wall, who missed seven of the 11 shots he took and had a 7-5 turnover-assist ratio. “He’s just got to continue to stay aggressive. That’s my main point. He can’t worry about anything else. That’s who he is. That’s who he’s been since he’s been in this league.”
This was about Paul George’s 39 points and the unyielding resolve of the Indiana Pacers to come back from significant deficits twice in the second half as much as it was an indictment on Wall and a not-yet-ready-for-LeBron cast of characters, who brought all their liabilities to bear to successfully take away a heretofore golden evening from the District’s pro basketball fans.
How do you ruin this, after how the old-head veterans like Miller, Harrington and Gooden kept the Wizards in it, giving every ligament left as if they were still in their primes despite totaling a combined 104 years and 43 NBA seasons? How do you waste 28 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots from three guys with Old Testament Starter Jackets?
How does a team up 17 points at halftime and almost double digits midway through the fourth quarter fall apart like this on its home floor?
How? Wall and the Wizards haven’t been here before. They’re still finding out that playoff basketball is more than the dispensing of a Chicago Bulls’ team with a water-gun offense.
The harsh truth: Wall is not yet the all-star point guard in those closing moments. He’s John (Hit The) Wall, and he may need another year of seasoning in May before he scales the second round.
Game 5 is Tuesday night in Indiana. Believe that, after all the surprise and satisfaction from the win over Chicago in the first round, the Wizards are on the precipice of being knocked out of the playoffs after losing for the third straight time to the Pacers?
Coming off their own closeout night nearly two weeks ago, they will travel to the Bankers Life Fieldhouse with their season suddenly on the line.
Wall made a monstrous three-pointer to stake Washington to an 88-82 lead with 4 minutes 29 seconds left, but the Pacers slowly got back in it, valuing every possession so much more than the Wizards.
Wall made his free throws. But too often he was in no man’s land in the middle of the key, with no one to throw to.
Wall is facing a confidence crisis in his maiden playoff season. Everyone in the league says these are the kind of moments that strengthen young stars down the road. But it doesn’t feel like that now at Verizon.
It feels like it’s past 11 p.m. and the maintenance crew is cleaning up the popcorn in the aisles, sweeping up the cups and debris, for perhaps the last time this season.
Here’s the most deflating thought: What if the Wizards rally in Game 5, pull off a stunning save-their-season effort on Tuesday night? Their reward is coming back to Verizon, where they are 1-3 in the playoffs and barely over .500 on the season.
When Wall was on the court Sunday night, the Wizards were outscored by 21 points. That’s not just him, but he is the leader, the face of the franchise, the $80 million man.
Unless that fearless blur of youth returns in 48 hours to force a Game 6, unless Wall pushes back against his demons and the Pacers, it’s going to be 35 years and counting since this franchise last played for a spot in the NBA Finals.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.