ATLANTA — Washington Wizards point guard John Wall ended his night early, walking off the court with the clock stopped late in the final quarter. He deserved the proper ovation for a road villain — hard handshakes from teammates and scattered boos from a salty crowd — after closing out the Atlanta Hawks.
As the Wizards defeated Atlanta, 115-99, in Game 6 of a first-round playoff series and advance to meet the top-seeded Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Wall stamped this elimination game with a performance suited for franchise lore. In the final quarter, as the Wizards nearly lost a huge lead, Wall outscored the Hawks by two, pouring in 19 of his game-high 42 points.
The performance earned Wall and his team a date with Boston, where the best-of-seven series starts Sunday at 1 p.m.
Wall’s output ranks as the third-highest total by a Wizards or Bullets player in the postseason — but it was a defensive play that defined Wall’s night.
The Wizards went ahead 68-46 early in the second half, but that lead turned to rubble. With less than nine minutes to play, the Hawks trailed just 93-90 and point guard Dennis Schroder thought he had a clear path to the rim to pull even closer. That’s when Wall chased down Schroder, erasing his fast-break layup with a block. He then drove and finished at the other end to push the lead to 95-90.
“It’s really not fair — a point guard being able to do what he does. It’s only one player in the league who does that, and we all know who that is,” Coach Scott Brooks said, referring to LeBron James. “But he does it every game. That’s a sign of a champion. You chase down plays. You stay in plays.”
It wasn’t just Wall. The Wizards collected 16 steals — Kelly Oubre Jr. performed as a defensive bugaboo with five — and blocked seven shots.
“We needed that energy on defense,” Bradley Beal said. “Those extra effort plays.
“We were flying around. It was all about our defense tonight. We had great, great baskets down the stretch. We made some tough baskets, but we couldn’t have been in that situation without getting those stops.”
Every time the Hawks worked back into the game, with the Philips Arena crowd chanting and screaming throughout the final 12 minutes, the Wizards responded to that desperation with their own road resolve.
When the Hawks again pulled within a field goal with 5:32 remaining, Wall found Beal cutting around a screen on the next possession, and Beal’s 16-foot jump shot was pure, just as it was much of the night. Beal made 11 of 17 shots for 31 points, his third 30-plus game of the playoffs.
In the opening minutes, Wall didn’t need to chase down an errant outlet pass by the Hawks, but that hustle and save led to Beal’s three-pointer in transition. In the first half, the Wizards outscored the Hawks on the fast break 24-4.
Jason Smith also showed the necessary grit and toughness just by being active. On Friday morning, Smith’s left calf strain was considered so serious that Brooks felt he might have to keep his backup center on the sideline. But when starter Marcin Gortat picked up two fouls in the opening 4½ minutes, Smith got up from his seat and unfastened his warmups.
The grit was tested again in the closing seconds of the quarter, when Beal stood up for himself and the Wizards showed that they would not back down from this fight. After a steal by Oubre, Beal raced in for a breakaway dunk. As he landed, Kent Bazemore subtly pushed his side, and the contact sent Beal sliding into fans seated along the baseline. Beal popped up, his ire directed at official Bill Spooner, and he bumped into Bazemore’s chest as several teammates rushed in and showed their displeasure.
There was only a shove here and there — and a very angry Smith gesturing toward Bazemore — but the anger abated.
It was an unusually fiery moment in a series that, beyond the talk of “double MMA” and a few GIFs of Wall dunking over or staring down Schroder, had lacked sizzle, overshadowed by fouls and missed jump shots.
Markieff Morris, averaging nearly five fouls in the series entering Friday, had spent too much time on the bench after reaching, hacking and fouling his matchup, Paul Millsap. And through five games, the Wizards had struggled to find any offensive rhythm, shooting 43.9 percent from the field. On Friday night, Morris managed to get through the first half without committing a foul and subsequently had his best night since Game 1.
Morris started the game with a turnaround baseline jumper, then air-balled his next attempt. But after the gaffe, Morris transformed into a floor-spacing forward by knocking down a pair of three-pointers in the opening quarter and finishing with 17 points.
After 40 minutes, Morris had just two fouls.
Once Morris figured out how to remain on the court — his presence allowed the Wizards to keep their best unit intact — the glossy veneer returned to Washington’s offense.
The Wizards saw some of the same shots they couldn’t make in previous games. On Friday night, those shots fell — the Wizards shot 65.8 percent from the field in the first half en route to a searing 65 points.
The offense again looked inspired, and late in the half Brooks was so fired up after watching Beal work over Tim Hardaway Jr. and cap a possession with a 23-foot jumper that Brooks slapped his shooting guard on his rear as he ran back on defense.
By halftime, the Wizards’ defense also deserved a hand — the team had forced 11 steals, the most since the Philadelphia 76ers collected 14 during the first half of a playoff game May 13, 1999. Even so, the defensive effort could not last. In the third quarter, the Hawks cut into the 22-point deficit and scored 36 points. Then three minutes into the final frame, a defensive scramble allowed Hawks guard Jose Calderon to shoot an open corner three — and Atlanta trailed just 93-90.
The Hawks had asked one final question. Wall and the Wizards had the answer.
“It’s the same thing they did to us two years ago,” Wall said, recalling the 2015 playoff series against the Hawks. “We had a chance to win Game 5 here; we lost it. In Game 6, they beat us in our home, and all we could do is have sad faces and go back home. So we came in with that determination and focus that we wanted to do the same thing them guys did to us two years ago, and me and Brad led the way. . . . We didn’t want to have a Game 7.”