For anyone who watched Gilbert Arenas collapse to the floor after Gerald Wallace dove into his left knee, Kwame Brown fumble post-entry passes out of bounds, Michael Jordan hobble around for two forgettable seasons that even he refuses to acknowledge and/or a washed up Mitch Richmond struggle to hit shots while Chris Webber thrived in Sacramento, Thursday was another unfriendly reminder that the Washington Wizards simply cannot have nice things.
The past three or so decades have been a painful trek for the Wizards and their beleaguered fans — a time filled with missed opportunities, misguided plans, mistakes and misfortune. Getting overly confident or excited about the prospects of the organization has never seemed like a good idea because heartache was always waiting around the corner, ready to greet hope with a billy club.
Heartache again came swinging and possibly connected with an all-timer on the disappointment scale. The Wizards announced Thursday that John Wall — the first foundational all-star drafted and developed solely by the organization since Wes Unseld — has five non-displaced fractures in his left hand and wrist.
Wall had been no worse than the second-best player in the Eastern Conference this postseason, leading the Wizards to a franchise-record five straight playoff wins before an awkward fall caused his left hand to inflate like a blowfish. Barring Wall making a miraculous return, the Wizards’ best opportunity to reach the conference finals — and possibly the NBA Finals — for the first time since 1979 has been ruined.
Any other Wizard could have gone down with a similar injury and the team would have had the depth to beat the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in this best-of-seven series, which moves to Verizon Center on Saturday for Game 3. But Wall provided evidence this postseason that more was in store with his inspired play and leadership, fueling the Wizards with his speed, passion, playmaking ability and defensive intensity. Without him, plans for an upset have been upset.
Wall was the puppeteer working the strings for the Wizards’ offense, and he dominated the ball like no other point guard in the NBA. Paul Pierce and Bradley Beal fed off his passes for open three-pointers. Marcin Gortat avoided starvation by diving to the basket in pick-and-rolls. Before sitting out Tuesday’s Game 2 loss, Wall had four consecutive double-doubles, coming one shy of Moses Malone’s franchise playoff record.
Pierce, a former champion in his 17th season, came to finish out one of the last seasons of his eventual Hall of Fame career in Washington explicitly to play with Wall and Beal. Last week, Pierce said, “John has put his superstar cap on. I always say this is where the stars of the NBA become superstars — in the playoffs. This is where they’re born, and that’s what you’re seeing with John Wall right now.”
After the Wizards lost Game 2 without Wall in Atlanta, Pierce gathered his teammates in the locker room and told them they still were the better team in this series. Though he was greeted with confident nods, Pierce has been a part of special teams that were undone by ill-timed injuries. Pierce captured a title in 2008, but the Celtics never grabbed another because Kevin Garnett hurt his knee before the 2009 playoffs and Kendrick Perkins hurt his knee in the 2010 NBA Finals.
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, who bought the team the same summer it drafted Wall, echoed Pierce’s sentiment in a radio interview Wednesday that the Wizards still could win the series. But Leonsis added, “It’s absolutely the wrong guy.”
The Wizards have built their organization around Wall’s talents — one of the reasons they handed him a five-year, $85 million contract extension that began this season — and are 10-40 when he sits the past five seasons, including Tuesday’s loss. Wall hasn’t been officially ruled out of this postseason, but his hand remains too puffy to fully evaluate for an accurate timetable. An injury this serious would keep Wall sidelined for several weeks in the regular season.
Coach Randy Wittman, who played with a Hall of Famer in Dominique Wilkins and coached future Hall of Famer Garnett, called Wall “the toughest kid I’ve been around” in more than 30 years in the NBA. Wall’s actions already have supported that sentiment since he got hurt in the first half of the Wizards’ Game 1 victory over the Hawks, simply taped up his wrist on the bench and finished the game.
Knowing what is known now — and what Wall feared at the time — how remarkable was that performance? It surely will go down as the grittiest of Wall’s career, no matter how it eventually plays out. Wall broke the same wrist as a sophomore in high school and immediately thought it had happened again. That was one of the reasons Wall, a player accustomed to falling with his relentless drives to the hoop, slammed the court in agony after getting accidentally undercut by Atlanta’s Jeff Teague.
“I knew when I fell on it,” Wall said earlier this week. “You never know when you’ve got a lot of energy and power going down on the ground, so I thought I broke it. Kind of the same type of injury.”
Wall refused to accept the initial diagnosis of a “real, real bad sprain” after X-rays immediately following the game were negative. According to a person with knowledge of the situation, Wall clashed with team medical staffers before sitting out Tuesday because he felt something more serious had caused his hand to explode. After a few days of confusion and concern, Wall got the confirmation of bone fractures that he never really wanted, leaving fans of the team with broken hearts.
If this series goes the distance, Game 7 would be May 18, and even then, that might not be enough time for Wall, who surely will make every effort to get back on the court and compete.
The situation for Washington isn’t as hopeless as 2007, when the Wizards lost Arenas and Caron Butler to season-ending injuries a few weeks before getting swept in the first round by LeBron James and eventual conference champion Cleveland. They still have the talent and veteran leadership to be competitive and maybe sneak a game or two from the Hawks. But winning the series against a 60-win team without a healthy Wall is another story — a story of gut-wrenching ruin the Wizards know all too well.