AUBURN HILLS, MICH. — Reggie Jackson sensed the sliver of space, squared up and launched a rainbow over the Washington Wizards’ defense inside The Palace of Auburn Hills on Friday night. The three-pointer swished through the net at the end of its steep arc, instigating a roar from the postseason-starved collection of fans. Jackson jogged back, taking a second to simulate shooting a bow and arrow toward the Detroit Pistons’ bench.
It was late in the fourth quarter of the Pistons’ 112-99 victory and the Wizards’ playoff chances, precipitously dropping in recent days, had finally disintegrated.
While John Wall, the Wizards’ $80 million point guard, watched from the adjacent bench in a sparkled black hoodie. Jackson, Detroit’s $80 million general, spent the evening exploiting every defender in his path. He routinely carved Washington’s defense en route to 39 points as the Pistons staved off Washington to clinch their first playoff berth since 2009. Washington, bidding for a third straight trip to the playoffs, was mathematically eliminated.
“We just didn’t have an answer for Reggie Jackson,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said.
Elimination games were not uncharted territory for the Wizards. They just didn’t expect to play any in the regular season without their best player. But a season that began with a top-four seed and the franchise’s first Eastern Conference finals berth since 1979 atop the list of objectives was sabotaged by baffling inconsistency and a bevy of perplexing losses. Consequently, the Wizards have spent much of the second half of the season outside the playoff picture, scoreboard-peeking while they squandered opportunities.
With three games remaining, the Wizards, winners of 44 and 46 games the past two seasons, are 38-41 and cannot finish the campaign above .500.
“We had some tough losses,” said Wizards forward Markieff Morris, who was acquired Feb. 18. “It’s tough with the talent and the expectations they had even before I got here. It’s definitely a tough way to end the season. But we have to finish these last games strong and start looking forward.”
The Pistons improved to 43-37 after finishing 32-50 last season and rose to seventh place in the Eastern Conference with the victory. Jackson led the charge Friday, shooting 14 of 20 from the field and adding nine assists. Tobias Harris, a trade-deadline acquisition, contributed 17 points, while all-star Andre Drummond was held to eight points and six rebounds in 26 minutes.
Morris, playing against his twin brother, Marcus, for the third time since joining the Wizards, recorded 29 points, his most in a Wizards uniform. Bradley Beal, who assumed some primary ballhandling duties with Wall out, contributed 25 points and had six turnovers. Ramon Sessions, Wall’s replacement in the starting lineup, finished with 12 points and six assists.
Wall underwent an MRI exam on his right knee after sitting out Wednesday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets — the first game he had missed this season — and the results revealed no tear or sprain. After the Wizards had their team photo taken at Verizon Center on Thursday morning, he went to a doctor and the knee was drained. That remedied the swelling, but the pain remained after treatment all day Thursday and Friday morning before the team rode the bus to Auburn Hills for shoot-around.
“It took all the fluid out, but it’s just still sore and numb to move,” Wall said after shoot-around Friday morning. “It’s just sore. It’s still sore.”
Wall also said he still doesn’t know how he hurt the knee. He woke up with it swollen Wednesday morning. He recalled his day Tuesday, mystified: practice, shooting workouts, usual maintenance treatment, shower, media availability, home.
“Nothing was wrong,” Wall said.
The Wizards did not succumb without some pugnacity Friday. The Pistons used a three-point barrage — they made nine of their first 11 attempts — to build a 19-point lead in the second quarter, which Washington shrunk to seven at halftime. Detroit again tried to put the Wizards away in the third quarter, widening the gulf back to 16 with 4 minutes 58 seconds remaining in the period on a three-point play by Marcus Morris.
The Wizards then closed the period on a 21-5 spurt behind Markieff Morris, who tallied 20 points in the quarter — one fewer than his previous high in a game with Washington — and capped the dominant stretch with a half-court heave at the buzzer that cut Detroit’s lead to 86-84 entering the final frame. It was Washington’s first 20-point quarter since Trevor Ariza recorded 24 points in a period against the Philadelphia 76ers in March 2014.
Washington later seized its first lead of the game, 87-86, with 10:16 left when Reggie Bullock was called for a technical foul and Beal made the ensuing free throw. The Pistons then climbed back on top before the Wizards opted to employ a popular strategy: intentionally fouling Drummond, a 35.5 percent free throw shooter. The first foul came with 8:55 remaining. Drummond missed both attempts, air balling the second. The display forced Pistons Coach Stan Van Gundy to replace Drummond with backup Aron Baynes.
The move paid dividends: Baynes closed the game and scored eight points down the stretch as the Wizards scored just nine points over the final 8:51 with their playoff hopes on the line.
Now the question is whether Wall will play again this season. Wall said he hadn’t thought about being shut down before Friday, but he acknowledged that if Washington were to lose, it would become an option.
“If we lose tonight, there’s probably no point,” Wall said before the game. “I don’t know.”