John Wall woke up from his deep sleep Monday morning to the heartbreaking text message. Six-year-old Miyah Telemaque-Nelson, the little girl from Northwest Washington he befriended last year, had died from Burkitt’s lymphoma earlier in the morning. Wall, stunned, didn’t respond. He went back to sleep, hoping to escape the somber reality.
With his heart heavy, Wall went to work at Verizon Center a few hours later. His Washington Wizards, as always, were relying on their star point guard to orchestrate and avenge Sunday’s frustrating loss to the Boston Celtics.
By the end of the emotional day, Wall had put together one of the most memorable performances of his five-year career in a thrilling 133-132 double-overtime victory. Wall scored 10 of his 26 points in the second overtime, handed out a career-high 17 assists, grabbed seven rebounds and recorded three steals as the Wizards improved to 10-2 at home this season.
“This is for Miyah, one of my close friends that I lost,” Wall said in an on-court television interview following the win. “It’s just tough, man. To see a little kid fight so hard for cancer and can’t beat it, this game’s for her. My jersey, my shorts, I’m going to give it to her family. It’s a tough day for me, and I was really quiet today. . . . ”
Wall’s voice trailed off, and he broke down. In tears, he bent over, unable to answer the reporter’s next question, and walked off to the locker room.
The emotional evening completed a roller-coaster 36 hours for the Wizards. They departed frigid New England on Sunday evening frustrated. For three quarters they had allowed the rebuilding Celtics to dominate. By the time it all clicked in the fourth quarter, a furious rally came too late.
But in a rare scheduling quirk, the Wizards were afforded another crack at it Monday night, an opportunity to avenge the disappointing defeat against the same Celtics 450 miles south. Sunday’s script flipped Monday with an alternate ending: Like the Celtics did on Sunday, the Wizards took control for three quarters. But unlike the Wizards on Sunday, the Celtics did enough to push the game to overtime, and then to another overtime, only to blow their own leads after regulation.
Boston (7-12) held seven-point advantages in each overtime session. Down 119-112 with 1 minute 38 seconds remaining in the first overtime, Washington was able to chip away at the deficit with free throws. Paul Pierce, who scored a season-high 28 points against his former employer for 15 seasons, completed the comeback with a three-pointer to tie the game at 121 with 38 seconds left.
A nearly identical scenario transpired in the second extra period: The Wizards spotted the Celtics a 130-123 lead with 2:40 remaining. This time, Wall took over. He reeled off 10 straight points for the Wizards, capped by a three-point play after he utilized his unmatched speed in the open floor to draw a foul on Evan Turner en route to a layup to give the Wizards the lead.
The basket and free throw proved to be enough when Turner’s jump shot with 0.9 seconds left ricocheted off the rim to finally seal the victory.
“He was unbelievable for us in overtime,” Pierce said of Wall. “I mean, he just got to the rim at will. He pushed the ball and, like I said before, he’s growing right before our eyes — not only from a star to a superstar, but to one of the very best players in this league at his position, if not the best.”
Wall has accumulated 71 assists over the Wizards’ last five games and became the first player in franchise history to record at least 12 assists in five straight games. But he also had nine turnovers, including four in the disastrous fourth quarter.
The Wizards enjoyed an 88-65 lead with 2:28 remaining in the third quarter. From there, they deteriorated with an influx of giveaways. The Celtics, with four reserves on the floor and their star point guard Rajon Rondo on the bench, scored the next 11 points to spark a 38-14 run. Turner’s three-pointer concluded the stretch to give Boston a 103-102 lead — the visitors’ first since being up 13-12 with 6:50 left in the first quarter.
Washington had six turnovers at halftime, but committed eight in the fourth quarter and finished with 23. Yet the Wizards still appeared to have the game won in the final seconds of regulation.
With the game tied at 105, Pierce, who passed Reggie Miller for 16th on the all-time scoring list in the second quarter, drained a tough turnaround jumper with 1:24 remaining. After Brandon Bass turned it over for the Celtics at the other end, Wall provided what seemed to be the final blow, a pull-up midrange jumper to expand the Wizards’ cushion to four points.
But the Wizards couldn’t cinch the victory. Kelly Olynyk’s hook shot with 39.1 seconds cut Boston’s advantage in half. Georgetown product Jeff Green, who scored 28 points, and Marcus Smart then each missed layups, and Kris Humphries went to the free throw line with a chance to seal the win. But he made just 1 of 2 free throws, and Turner, who scored 18 of Boston’s franchise-record 82 bench points, swished a desperation three-pointer from the corner with 0.6 seconds on the clock to send the game to overtime.
“You just have to give them credit,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “They play whether you’re up 25 or down 25. They’re not going to stop playing. We had a lot of big resiliency.”
Wall was the most resilient of Wittman’s bunch. With his team scuffling in the second overtime, the 24-year-old floor general took it upon himself to become aggressive. He darted at the rim, utilizing his jets to feast in the open floor for two difficult layups. He didn’t want to depend on anyone else. He wanted to win this one for Miyah.
“This game was really meant for her,” Wall said. “It would’ve been even tougher to lose it. God has his plans, and I just went into a mode that I didn’t want to lose this game. There was more to it for me.”
Note: The Wizards were without Nene, who was a late scratch because of a sore right knee. Nene had returned Friday after missing five games with right plantar fasciitis and came off the bench for two games. Before Monday’s game, Coach Randy Wittman indicated Nene’s conditioning needed to improve.
“He needs to get in shape,” Wittman said. “He’s not in shape to play more than he is right now. We got to continue to work with that. And take a couple weeks — it doesn’t take very long to lose professional conditioning. It really doesn’t. So we got to keep working on it.”