How much more playoff misery is in store for the Washington Wizards? How many more sucker punches to the gut can they withstand? How much longer will they have to believe they have arrived, only to realize they’ve reached another painful detour? How many more times will they be at home, facing elimination, and allow their fans to share in the soul-burning sorrow?
A flick of the wrist that was so beautiful, a splash through the net that was so deafening, packed too much euphoria for what followed. That unbridled joy, built upon the belief that the Wizards were on their way to overtime — on the most improbable of fallaway jumpers — against the Atlanta Hawks was burst in an instant. Paul Pierce was a fraction of a second too late, and before the shock of losing a game could sink in, the Wizards had to accept the devastating reality that the season was over as well.
“It is tough,” Pierce said afterward, “It is a game of inches and split seconds.”
Unfortunately, the Wizards have had too many of those moments work against them. They endured the agony of Cleveland’s LeBron James tapping Gilbert Arenas on the chest, telling him that he would go home if he missed those free throws — only to watch Arenas indeed miss those free throws before Damon Jones hit the decisive jumper on the next play. They had to endure Indiana’s David West hitting step-back jumper after step-back jumper last season. But never have the Wizards suffered an elimination loss more crushing, more unbelievable and more unsettling that what came Friday at Verizon Center.
Losing teams aren’t supposed to have desperation shots fall as the buzzer sounds. Losing teams don’t get to hear the exhilaration of the crowd. Losing teams aren’t supposed to have an opportunity to gather around the hero, pat him on the head as he walks around, arms raised, soaking in the adulation.
Pierce nailed that jumper, held his right hand high to flaunt that shooting form, and a packed house of about 20,000 was ready to embrace “The Truth”. Until the actual truth arrived. Until a crew of officials in Secaucus, N.J., watched the replay repeatedly and determined during a three-minute review of the shot that Pierce still had the ball on his fingertips as time expired. The three-minute celebration — the three minutes of gleeful anticipation — was a wasted exercise, meant only to make the eventual outcome more horrific.
“There will be nightmares for a couple of days,” John Wall said, offering an extremely low estimate.
With their 94-91 defeat to the top-seeded Hawks, the Wizards have lost seven consecutive elimination games at home, a string that has seen Chris Webber and Juwan Howard fall to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1997; Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Larry Hughes fall to Dwyane Wade and a resting Shaquille O’Neal in 2005; and James adding to the agony from 2006 to 2008. Last year was Paul George and the Indiana Pacers’ turn. And this year brought a Hawks team, whose own feelings of devastation from Pierce’s shot turned to a stunning thrill of victory after those endless three minutes.
“I see Paul Pierce shooting the ball, and I was about to cry,” Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll said. “It went through, but the basketball gods was on our side. They let us get through this.”
The Hawks are headed to the conference finals for the first time in 45 years. The Wizards would gladly exchange that emotional ride for the difficult one that they were forced to experience on a night when they already had to overcome so much to even be in position to possibly force a Game 7. Their best player was on the court, hustling and diving despite five non-displaced fractures in his left hand and wrist. Their starting center, Marcin Gortat, was battling flu-like symptoms, on intravenous fluids most of the day, seated on the bench for the final 19 minutes with a towel wrapped around his neck. Their starting power forward was tossing up dreadful shots off the backboard and flubbing free throws.
And before his heroics were wiped out by a review, Pierce was going to be the one taking the blame after the Hawks used an offense strategy that was simply to attack him with whomever he was guarding.
Coach Randy Wittman relied on Drew Gooden and the seldom-seen Kevin Seraphin to take over in place of the ineffective Gortat and Nene and the energy of Otto Porter Jr. to make up for Pierce’s shortcomings. And John Wall and Bradley Beal handled the rest, rallying the team from a 15-point second-half deficit. Beal continued his playoff awakening with a game-high 29 points, expending every ounce of energy on both ends of the floor and giving the Wizards an 88-87 lead on a baseline jumper with 3 minutes 50 seconds remaining.
The game was playing out in similar fashion to last year against the then-top-seeded Pacers, when they overcame a 14-point deficit to take a one-point lead on a Beal three-pointer before breaking down under a barrage of West jumpers. The Wizards wanted to show that they learned how to finish from last season, wanted to advance to the conference finals (at least) for the first time in 36 years. That was why they brought in Pierce, a former champion and future Hall of Famer who has built a reputation on embracing the moments most shy away from. He couldn’t have had a more humbling game but he wanted the shot that meant the most — and he made it. Pierce dribbled left to escape Kyle Korver and Al Horford, aligned his feet perfectly along the baseline, making sure that heel was raised just above the white line. When he finally slung the ball toward the rim, time almost halted. A collective gasp then became an ear-splitting roar.
His release was too late. Pierce had already called “game” in Game 3, missed a potential tying jumper in Game 4 and called “series” a tad bit prematurely in Game 5 — when his go-ahead three-pointer with 8.3 seconds remaining was upstaged by Horford’s putback. But he was there for redemption, there to put an end to a playoff history that has been cluttered with shattered dreams. No team should have a game, much less a series, end in such fashion. But again, no other team is the Wizards.
“It was just a little late,” Wittman said.