John Wall stood at top of the key, pounding the ball, waiting for the Atlanta Hawks to prove their desperation. The Washington Wizards led pivotal Game 5 of their first-round series by four points, which meant the Hawks needed two possessions. They had an enemy in the clock, ticking down inside the final minute. The Hawks required a miraculous sequence, one that could only be put into motion through their action, and Wall knew it.
“I thought they was going to play the foul game, or at least try to trap,” Wall said later.
Instead, the Hawks did something peculiar, a tactic unbefitting the circumstances: nothing. They allowed Wall to dribble the ball until the shot clock expired. Upon corralling a rebound after Marcin Gortat’s own bizarre decision to try for a stickback, the Hawks displayed another dose of bizarre passivity, making two passes before a final, useless three-pointer clanged off the rim, leaving themselves with an unused 20-second timeout.
Atlanta had long odds at a comeback, anyway, but the Hawks’ strange endgame sealed Washington’s 103-99 victory and the Wizards’ 3-2 advantage as the series shifts back to Atlanta.
“They let us run the clock down,” Wall said.
For the Hawks, the odd finish spoiled Dennis Schroder’s all-around offensive genius, his season-high five three-pointers that contributed to his 29 points to go with 11 assists, most coming once the Wizards were forced to push up on him behind the arc. The move prevented the Hawks from completing their comeback after they had whittled an 11-point deficit to 101-99 after Schroder’s three with 1:10 remaining.
“It was right there,” Schroder said. “We missed a couple rebounds, missed a couple layups, shots. It’s tough. In crunchtime, we got to make those kind of plays.”
At the very end, the Hawks didn’t give themselves a chance. It started when the Hawks allowed Wall to simply dribble 24 seconds off the clock, without fouling or even pressuring the point guard. Afterward, the Hawks did not take issue with the approach.
“I think we wanted to get a stop and push it,” Schroder said. “That’s exactly what we did.”
“They take a shot, 10 or 12 seconds left on the game clock, go down there, make an easy basket while they’re trying not to foul,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said.
“We live with that,” forward Paul Millsap said. “I think we let the clock wind down, play good defense.”
“We make a three, they make two free throws, we still got a chance at a last-second shot,” Kent Bazemore said. “You’re on the road, you want to make it as easy on yourself as possible. We live with that loss. We had so much chances down the stretch, late. Just couldn’t capitalize.”
The Hawks played good enough defense, forcing Wall into a tough fadeaway with 13 seconds on the clock. Gortat corralled the rebound with 11 seconds left, and he could have sealed the game by either kicking it out or converting a putback. Instead, he bricked a layup. “I don’t know what happened,” Wall said.
Gortat’s miss gave the Hawks a glimmer, but they needed to rush their offense to even have a chance to score, foul and get the ball back. Instead, they dallied. Hardaway passed to Millsap, who attempted a drive, was stifled and dished to a teammate. The ball toggled back to Hardaway, who launched a three-pointer with one second left. It missed, but even had it gone in, the clock might have expired before it left the net, anyway.
“We could have gotten a little earlier shot,” Millsap said. “I passed up an earlier one I probably should have took. But it’s hard to read that.”
“We should have tried to score a lot sooner,” Hardaway said. “It just didn’t work out that way. We could have driven the ball. I know I kicked it to Paul. He could have driven, he could have shot a three. But, you know, stuff happens. We tried to get a clean look. They did a good job of just scrambling.”
The Wizards, in fact, took pride in their final defensive stand. Their transition defense has failed them all series. With a chance to end Game 5, they executed better than they had all playoffs.
“That was the best we did all series in scrambling back and finding men in transition,” Wall said. “That was a point emphasis we’ve been trying to relate to our guys: In transition, you don’t have a man. I think at times, when we have leads, we give up two or three threes in a row to get those guys back into the game. For us to end the game with the best scrambling defense we had, we got to translate that on to the other 48 minutes of the game.”
The Hawks left Washington trying to figure out how the Wizards had seized control of the series. When asked how they had lost, Millsap paused and sighed. “Honestly,” he said, “I don’t know.”
What was certain, even if the Hawks didn’t admit it, was that at the end, they had not even given themselves a chance.