Markieff Morris doesn’t remember much about the play, only that it worked. The details of the alley-oop — the heaven-high pass from John Wall; the defender, Kyle Lowry, running beneath him; the catch and tender kiss off the glass before sailing out of bounds — were hazy. He just knew that it was crunch time, and Bradley Beal had fouled out, and the Washington Wizards had reached their most critical point of a crazy season.
“We needed it,” Morris said. “That’s all I know.”
Desperation. It was that simple. Win or fall behind 3-1 to Toronto in the first-round NBA playoff series. Win or spend the offseason whining, “If the refs hadn’t made that horrible call to foul out Beal, maybe we would’ve made trouble for the Raptors.”
The game was tied at 92 when Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan stumbled into Beal while going after a loose ball, and an official made what seemed to be a game-changing — no, game-losing — call. If it’s possible to skip furiously, that’s how Beal reacted to receiving his sixth foul, dashing to the scorer’s table in protest and then saying some R-rated words as he ventured back to the bench. Coach Scott Brooks screamed. The Capital One Arena crowd jeered.
It felt like a call that would haunt the end of the Wizards’ season. Except, amazingly, it wasn’t. The team that failed to inspire for much of this season, that left you constantly wondering why it couldn’t be a normal, stable playoff team, did something unexpected without Beal in the final five minutes. And this time, it was delightful. In closing a 106-98 Game 4 victory without Beal, the Wizards showed the kind of late-game resolve they have lacked and made it a 2-2 series. They won their toughest and most taxing game of the season.
The Wizards have done some resilient things, but this isn’t the kind of game they win. Not this year. They have done a good job overall recovering from Wall’s two knee-related absences and responding after tough losses. But their late-game play has been atrocious. Not on Sunday, though.
It felt different from the moment Morris caught and finished that lob. The play-call was beautiful, and the execution required the fearlessness of Wall to throw the pass in that situation. It occurred with 3:21 remaining. It was the Wizards’ second bucket after Beal went to the bench, and it gave Washington a 96-94 lead. Even though there was plenty of basketball left, the play was confirmation that the game was safely in the hands of the venturesome Wall.
The energizer point guard, who played 43 minutes and didn’t rest the entire second half, saved his best for the fourth quarter. He scored 10 of his 27 points, dished three of his 14 assists and corralled three of his six rebounds in the final period. During the Wizards’ game-closing 14-6 run without Beal, Wall had eight points and that assist to Morris. Their other four points came on free throws by Kelly Oubre Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. When the Wizards needed him, when the season was basically on the line, Wall was the dominant player on the court.
Beal, who had 31 points, couldn’t help Wall counter Toronto’s star backcourt, but it didn’t matter. DeRozan and Lowry combined for 54 points, but at the end, they struggled, making only 4 of 13 shots in the final quarter. Wall scored and scowled. And the Wizards showed that, despite their inconsistency, they’re a strong-willed team.
“You have to have resolve to win in this league,” Brooks said. “We’ve had some tough moments this year with John missing half the season, but we found it, and it put us in position to make the playoffs through resolve. You win playoff games and you win playoff series with having it. And we have that.”
Now the question isn’t about their playoff worthiness. The Wizards may have started the series playing like a No. 8 seed and falling behind 2-0. But in winning two home games, they performed like the team that had won a playoff series in three of the previous four seasons. They improved on defense. They adjusted and figured out how to run the Raptors off the three-point line. They got physical. After an ugly first half, they remembered how to share the basketball. They whittled this best-of-seven series to a best of three. The Raptors still have the home-court advantage, but they also will feel pressure now. They haven’t handled playoff scrutiny well in the past. They will be tested again.
“We were playing frenetic down the stretch,” said Toronto Coach Dwane Casey, whose team committed 18 turnovers for the second straight game. “At some point, we got to make sure we keep our composure and execute.”
It’s difficult to do when you get snookered into Wall’s game. He has a special ability to change a game with his energy. Even when the Wizards experience lulls on defense, Wall can still push the ball and turn the contest into a wild affair that somehow entices the opponent to play faster. And no one else can play at Wall’s pace, which is borderline reckless. The Raptors started throwing crazy passes to ruin fast-break opportunities and passing up open three-pointers to force contested shots inside the paint.
Meanwhile, Wall was in control, even though he sped into a few mistakes. After scoring only 40 points in the first half, after trailing by as much as 14 points, the Wizards started moving the ball better after halftime, and finally their offense functioned at its best. They scored 40 points in the third quarter, with Wall directing traffic, getting Porter (11 second-half points) involved and resisting the urge to dribble too much. With the offense flowing, life was easier after Beal fouled out.
“Next man up,” said Oubre, who had 10 points and five rebounds. “Straight like that. We have a lot of great talent on this team. At any given moment, anybody can go off and have a career game, a breakout game, because we work on our games every day, and we watch and learn. We’re very focused and mindful of our situations and everything that we need to do to succeed.”
As the Wizards closed the game, Beal became more enthusiastic than Jason Smith on the bench. He waved goodbye when Toronto center Jakob Poeltl fouled out. After every big play, he bounced, lifted his arms and screamed. He turned his frustration into celebration.
“I knew if we still had John in the game I loved our chances,” Beal said.
Once again, the Wizards thrived amid chaos.
“I guess when the pressure is on us, we like to step up to the plate,” Wall said. “It’s not a good situation to be in or put yourself in a lot of times, but we’ve shown that we can step up to the plate when the time is right.”
And now they go back to Toronto, refreshed, still alive, still learning about themselves, still dangerous.