INDIANAPOLIS — Feeling that the Washington Wizards’ feel-good season was slipping through his hands, John Wall was despondent and distant before Tuesday night’s Game 5. Silent on Monday’s plane ride from Dulles International Airport, Wall hid in his hotel room and watched movies to block out the criticism — from within and outside — for his uneven play this series against the Indiana Pacers.
Wall responded to a few text messages but mostly ignored phone calls and rejected encouraging words from friends, family and teammates. Before Game 5 tipped off, Marcin Gortat approached Wall, tapped him on his chest and got an immediate eye roll from the all-star point guard, who had no desire to hear another pep talk. Gortat pulled in Wall and told him, “I’m with you. It doesn’t matter which way it goes, I’m supporting you.”
With the Wizards at their most desperate, Gortat and Wall teamed up for breakout performances that led to a stunning 102-79 victory over the Pacers that cut their series deficit to 3-2 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The duo provided hope when there seemed to be none and leadership when the team appeared to be done.
Gortat notched playoff career highs with 31 points and 16 rebounds and Wall had his playoff career high with 27 points as the Wizards forced a Game 6 on Thursday at Verizon Center.
“We know the pressure’s still on us,” Wall said. “It’s one game and you’re out. I’ll be honest with you — me and my teammates are still humble even though we won the big game. But there’s no way we want to lose Game 6 on our home court and go home from there. We want to have an opportunity to come back for Game 7 here.”
The Wizards are the 195th team to go down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series. Only eight have come back to win the next three games. Though the odds of completing the comeback (four percent) are not exactly in their favor, Wizards guard Bradley Beal said before the game that he likes his team’s chances.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Beal said, “but why not try to make history?”
Washington took a step in that direction by improving to 5-1 on the road this postseason. The Wizards have won two games in Indiana this series but remain winless at home, where they are just 1-3 in the playoffs. After scoring 18 points to back up his pledge, Beal was asked what led to him feeling so confident that the Wizards could extend their season.
“I don’t know why, I just knew if one of our bigs and John had a big game, we were going to win the game and that happened. I guess you can say I’m a fortune teller,” Beal said with a laugh, refusing to predict the outcome of this series. “I’m not going to predict that far. I’m going to go one game at a time. So, I love our chances for the next game, too.”
The lopsided victory helped remove some of the sour taste from a miserable two games at Verizon Center, in which the Wizards set a franchise record for fewest points in a game with 63 in Game 3 and blew a 19-point second-half lead in Game 4. Washington dominated the Pacers on the boards by a staggering 62-23 margin and could’ve won in more emphatic fashion if not for committing 19 turnovers, which yielded 23 points for Indiana.
“Our back was against the wall and we’re not ready to leave yet. We’re not ready to go home,” said Trevor Ariza after scoring 10 points with 10 rebounds and limiting Paul George to just 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting. “We were salty about how we lost in Game 4.”
Wall took Sunday’s defeat and the series deficit the hardest. Coach Randy Wittman got upset when Wall told him that he couldn’t figure out how to score against the Pacers. He told Wall to be super aggressive, even if that meant he committed 20 turnovers and sent a text message that read, “‘Just believe. Just believe in yourself, John Wall.”
“And I did,” Wall said.
Wittman also sat down with Gortat after the Wizards’ morning shootaround. With Gortat mostly nodding and listening, Wittman told his 6-foot-11 center that the Wizards will be at their best if Gortat plays at his best. Gortat was at his worst in both home games, scoring a combined six points and getting outplayed by Pacers all-star center Roy Hibbert.
After his discussion with Wittman, Gortat said that with the Wizards playing desperate, Tuesday’s game would show “what you’re made of and if you have the heart to fight all the way to the end.”
Gortat once again proved his value after getting acquired from Phoenix five days before the start of the regular season and produced his best game since donning a Wizards jersey. Refusing to let Hibbert get the upper hand for the fourth straight game, Gortat, nicknamed “The Polish Hammer,” attacked the former Georgetown star almost every time he touched the ball, scoring with an array of jump hooks, turnaround jumpers and tip-ins.
“At some point in the middle of the game, it was fun to be in the game,” Gortat said. “Everything works, you feel immortal.”
The Wizards had been outscored in the third quarter of every game this series, including a combined 59-29 in both home losses. But Wall made sure that there wouldn’t be anything close to a repeat performance as he hit three three-pointers and personally outscored the Pacers, 17-14, to send his team into the fourth period with a 24-point lead. Entering the game, Wall hadn’t scored more than 15 points in any game this series.
“He’s a fighter. He wants to win, he’s a competitor,” Gortat said of Wall. “Today, he came out, he played his game and he played his game with me, which is pretty cool.”