Paul Pierce sat slumped at his corner locker late Friday in the white Washington Wizards uniform he had dazzled in for the last month, fiddling through his smartphone, demoralized. Hanging behind him was a red T-shirt reading “Why Not Us,” the mantra he coined and his team assumed when he arrived in this famished basketball hub nearly nine months ago. A few feet away was a greaseboard. On it, in blue marker, was the Wizards’ schedule for Monday, the next time they will convene after taking a weekend to reflect on their cruel, season-ending 94-91 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
For a minute or so about a half-hour earlier, the Wizards believed the itinerary could include the team’s first Game 7 in 36 years, another date with the Hawks at Philips Arena because of Pierce. Everyone in the arena thought Pierce had summoned another dose of postseason sorcery when his desperation three-pointer from the corner rose over a closing Kyle Korver and fell through the basket to apparently tie the game as the horn sounded.
The crowd detonated. Pierce’s teammates, stunned at the chance to have another five minutes to extend their season, flooded to the corner where the 17-year-veteran stood in the frenzied embrace of celebrity chef and front-row ticketholder Jose Andres. At the other end, the shocked Hawks, their first trip to the conference finals since 1970 snatched away, walked back to the bench devastated.
Then, as they filtered back to the sideline, a horrible reality smacked the Wizards in the face. The referees, as they are instructed to do for all buzzer-beaters, went to the monitors to review the play, to make sure Pierce was behind the three-point line and had released the ball in time.
The Wizards nervously peered up at the video screen, their hopes resting on the decision. A minute later, the referees emerged to overturn the shot. It left Pierce’s fingertips a fraction of a second too late. Just like that, the Hawks claimed the series, four games to two. The Wizards’ season was over in the cruelest of ways on the fourth consecutive finish that came down to one possession.
“It is tough,” Pierce said. “We always say that it is a game of inches and split seconds. So many things come into play.”
The end came a year to the day after Washington bowed out of the playoffs in naggingly similar circumstances, in six games to another top seed, the Indiana Pacers. It was the Wizards’ seventh consecutive defeat in an elimination game played on their home court.
“I am really proud of our guys,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “The heart they showed this year, taking this step again and ending up basically where we were last year.”
The Wizards, down by 15 points in the third quarter, did not go quietly. Still trailing by eight with 6 minutes 39 seconds remaining in the game and sensing the end, they mustered a 9-0 spurt to take their first lead since the second quarter. But they squandered chance after chance from there. First, Nene missed a pair of a free throws. Then a puzzling shot-clock violation concluded a possession. The next time down, Pierce missed a three-pointer before the Hawks finally ended a scoring drought of nearly five minutes with a jumper from Paul Millsap over Pierce.
John Wall then made one of two free throws to tie the game, and Atlanta followed with a bucket from DeMarre Carroll. He added another layup for the last of his team-high 25 points after Nene missed to give the Hawks a four-point lead with 30.9 seconds left. But Washington rallied again. Garrett Temple’s two free throws cut the lead to two with 7.8 seconds remaining. Al Horford then missed one of two free throws to set up Pierce’s chance at heroics.
“I see Paul Pierce shooting the ball, and I was about to cry,” Carroll said. “I said, ‘Not again.’ It went through, but the basketball gods was on our side. They let us get through this.”
The contest often resembled a throwback to the regular season, when the Hawks flummoxed, flustered and toppled the Wizards the three times they had their starting lineup. Atlanta’s mobile front line, the all-star duo of Millsap and Horford, took advantage of a sick Marcin Gortat. The center had spent the previous day with food poisoning. He arrived at the arena barely able to walk and threw up in the locker room. He was given two IVs.
In search of answers, Wittman went to Kevin Seraphin, who had logged less than 11 total minutes in the series and hadn’t played since Game 2. Seraphin, an impending unrestricted free agent, provided an unexpected spark in perhaps his final game in a Wizards uniform, netting 13 points and eight rebounds in 28 minutes. Wittman rode Seraphin as Gortat totaled two points and three rebounds in just 12 minutes. Nene had just five points on 2-for-7 shooting and shot 1 for 4 from the line to go with a team-high 11 rebounds.
Bradley Beal again led the Wizards with 29 points, while Wall, playing his second game with five non-displaced fractures in his left hand and wrist, added 20 points, 13 assists and six rebounds. Otto Porter Jr. (seven points, eight rebounds) and Drew Gooden III (seven points and six rebounds) made key contributions off the bench.
Millsap, often capitalizing on a mismatch with Pierce, had 20 points and 13 rebounds for the Hawks. Jeff Teague contributed 20 points and seven assists.
The Wizards believed they were on their way to finally breaking through. They had stolen Game 1 from the 60-win Hawks to push their postseason record to 5-0. They suddenly featured a finely tuned offensive machine to complement the top-five defense they rode to 46 wins, the most for the franchise since 1978-79.
Then tests after Game 1 revealed five fractures in Wall’s left hand and wrist. The Wizards were able to win once in three games without him, prolonging the series enough for him to make a return in Game 5.
“We feel like we should’ve won this series,” Wittman said.
At 9:54 p.m., a few minutes after the Wizards filed off the hardwood to a standing ovation, a group of fans remained in a suite overlooking the opposite tunnel. “Shot was good! Shot was good!” they chanted. Their voices echoed throughout the emptying arena as a television broadcast wrapped up.
But the shot wasn’t good, and there would be no Game 7 on Monday. Instead, the Wizards are expected at Verizon Center for physicals and meetings at 10 a.m. to put their season to rest.
“There will be nightmares for a couple of days,” Wall said.
More on the Wizards and the NBA playoffs:
On the NBA: Miserable ending is so Wizards