ATLANTA — Two Washington Wizards were stationed under the basket, prepared to corral the ball off the glass, to seal the victory on the shoulders of their wounded but resilient star, to come within one win of their first trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 36 years.
John Wall, five fractures in his left hand and wrist, had completed one final fearless play, blocking Dennis Schroder’s floater off the backboard with his right hand. There, ready for the rebound, stood Nene and Paul Pierce. Then, out of nowhere, with a full head of steam, appeared Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford, unchecked, soaring toward the basket, bouncing off Nene like a bowling ball, to snatch the basketball out of Nene’s hands.
Wall, backpedaling, took a swipe at Horford with his right hand, but it was too late. Horford was on his way up to lay in the ball with 1.9 seconds remaining and give the Hawks an 82-81 comeback victory Wednesday night at Philips Arena in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. A half-court heave from Bradley Beal felt short to seal the result, grant the Hawks a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series, and bring them within one win of their first conference finals appearance since 1970.
“They wanted it more,” Beal said. “Plain and simple. Came down to one stop, one rebound, that’s all we needed and we didn’t do that.”
The Hawks were able to overcome Wall’s uplifting — and effective — return. Wall first emerged from the visiting locker room at 6:49 p.m., attracting a television cameraman the instant he stepped out for his walk through the bowels of the arena. A minute later, he was using his left hand and wrist to dribble and shoot as a group of observers encircled half the hardwood to document the warmup session.
Halfway through the 20-minute routine the point guard discarded a black glove protecting the injured hand and continued unhindered. By the time he walked off, the Wizards had announced Wall would play after a three-game, 10-day absence.
Wall said he knew by Tuesday that he was going to play Wednesday night but there was plenty of intrigue when the Wizards arrived at the arena. Coach Randy Wittman said he still didn’t know if Wall was going to play when he met with members of the media 90 minutes before tipoff — he called Wall’s status a game-time decision. When the Wizards declared Wall active, they insisted he remained a game-time decision and the starting lineup written on the whiteboard in the media room featured a dash in the point guard’s spot. A few minutes later, Wall’s name was added.
With a small pad of black tape serving as the only protection on top of the injured hand, Wall exhibited glimpses of his usual self. He created shots with passes hidden to everyone else. He took a charge. He soared for a chase-down block. He was appeared to reluctant to use his left hand at times, but injected life into the Wizards and finished with 15 points on 7-for-16 shooting and seven assists, though he also had six turnovers.
“It felt great,” Wall said. “I didn’t have any problems with my hand. I was able to play aggressive and make plays so I was fine.”
Wall immediately erased all doubt about his capability. Just over a minute into the contest, he caught an outlet pass in full sprint and dashed down the floor for a layup, making sure to get the ball to his right hand before a trailing DeMarre Carroll could cut him off. Three minutes later, Wall, at full speed, burned Jeff Teague with a wicked left-handed inside-out dribble and finished over Kyle Korver with the left hand, falling on his back near the exact spot where he landed on the wrist in Game 1.
The Wizards’ offense, however, was often dysfunctional. Beal, back in his co-pilot role, netted a team-high 23 points and added seven rebounds. Marcin Gortat, Wall’s trusted pick-and-roll partner, recorded 14 points and eight rebounds, and Pierce finished with 11 points. But the Wizards shot just 37.9 percent from the floor and their bench production was limited to Otto Porter Jr.’s nine points.
Washington’s shortcomings allowed Atlanta to overcome struggles of their own. The Hawks committed 25 turnovers and shot uncharacteristic 5 for 22 (23 percent) from three-point range. Horford led Atlanta with 23 points and 11 rebounds, while fellow all-stars Paul Millsap and Teague each added 14. But Atlanta’s fourth all-star, Korver, was held without a point until he nailed a 27-foot three-pointer during the Hawks’ fourth-quarter spurt and finished with three points on 1-of-5 shooting.
And with their captain back in the fold, it appeared the Wizards were poised to steal a second game on the road this series with a nine-point lead and 6:15 remaining in the fourth quarter. But the Hawks stormed back with a 14-0 run as Washington’s offense fell apart. Washington went more than four minutes without a point and committed three of its 19 turnovers over the final 3:29.
“We just gave up too many easy baskets off our turnovers,” Wittman said.
Pierce committed the costliest of the bunch, getting stripped of the ball stripped to create a two-on-one fast break with Wall helplessly defending Horford and Carroll. The two Hawks exchanged a couple passes and Carroll easily converted a layup to break a 78-78 tie.
But Pierce avenged his gaffe on the ensuing possession with another big shot. The 17-year veteran drained a three-pointer from the corner with 8.3 seconds left to give Washington a one-point lead. After calling “game” with a buzzer-beater off the backboard in Game 3, Pierce turned to the Hawks’ bench and said “series” as he jogged back. But the Hawks had an answer and the Wizards, even with their star back, are now on the brink of elimination.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” Pierce said.