This is John Wall, for better or worse, in spiking frustration and in rapturous delight. He’s streaky. Sometimes he’s too fast for his own good. He’s just all over the place, a tornado of splendid, maddening and every hue of ridiculous.
But add another thing to the list now: Fearless. Put legendary in there, too, because people will be sharing the tale of his dauntless dagger from now until he’s too old to speed through life.
On Friday night, with the Washington Wizards’ season nearing the end of its plank, with Wall’s jumper looking awful and the team pinning its hopes to Bradley Beal, Wall rose and made the shot of his life. He didn’t care that he had missed 11 of his first 12 field goal attempts. Never mind that he was 8 of 24 overall to that point. With the Wizards trailing 91-89, Wall pulled up and launched a 26-footer. It fell through the net with 3.5 seconds remaining. And after a defensive stop, the Wizards – who had lost so many close home elimination playoff games over the past 20 years – celebrated a 92-91 victory over the Boston Celtics at Verizon Center.
It was the quintessential Wall performance – relentless.
“I’m not going home without a fight,” said Wall, who finished with 26 points and eight assists.
In an ugly Game 6 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Wizards were on the brink of being eliminated. And then Wall, a 32.1 percent career three-point shooter, rescued his team. First, the Wizards rescued him, battling despite his struggles, playing consistent defense. Down the stretch, as an awful offensive game turned into a back-and-forth exhibition of clutch shooting, Beal deserved the most credit for putting Washington in a position to win. He scored 13 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter, matching the Celtics shot for shot. But at the end, it was Wall, refusing to lose.
“He’s a winner,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said. “He plays to win. He’s not worried about his stats. He’s worried about winning the game.”
When the final buzzer sounded, Wall ran to hug his family, and then he jumped on the scorer’s table and yelled repeatedly, “This is our home! This is my house!”
And now, with the series tied at 3 and headed back to Boston for Game 7 on Monday, we’ll find out if the Celtics can protect their house so fiercely.
Most of the Boston players dressed in all black for this elimination game, just as the Wizards did in January before blowing out the Celtics at home. Call it “Funeral Game: The Sequel,” only this one was much more important. It was harder to watch, too. It seemed the Celtics wore black not to bury the Wizards, but to put good offensive basketball into the ground.
The Celtics shot 23.5 percent in the first quarter and 35 percent for the opening half, but they still led, 42-41. That’s because the Wizards were erratic on offense themselves. They shot just 42.5 percent in the first half, vacillating between moments of wonderful ball movement and poor decision making that contributed to eight early turnovers. In addition, the Wizards missed open shot after open shot. With each brick, you could feel them getting tighter.
After the unfathomable and humiliating effort the Wizards gave in Game 5, there was no denying their competitive desire in this one. With Wall and Bradley Beal as stars, the Wizards had already been eliminated in the second round at home twice, both in Game 6, to end the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Overall, the franchise had been booted from the playoffs at home in their last seven appearances. The Wizards wanted badly to change history. They played like they felt the pressure.
After a Friday morning shoot-around, Wall left no doubt about the game’s significance. Asked how he would feel if the Wizards lost, Wall said: “It’ll be a disappointing season. It’ll be a waste of time. I feel like the season was a waste if we don’t get to where we want to go, and that’s giving ourselves one more chance to fight.”
He took it further and said the season would be a waste even if the Wizards forced a Game 7 and then lost in Boston. For him, it was Eastern Conference finals or failure.
“I feel like it’s a loss,” Wall said.
Sometimes, such a strong statement spurs an amazing performance, which is what happened for the Celtics when Isaiah Thomas called Game 5 “the biggest game I’ve ever played.” Sometimes, it makes players tense. The Wizards were worried about the latter. And they were right to be concerned.
After taking a 40-30 lead in the second quarter, the Wizards went from cold to frozen. They didn’t make a field goal for a seven-minute stretch, which extended into the third quarter. It enabled the Celtics to take control.
The Wizards were reeling. They missed 18 of their first 20 three-pointers. Besides Beal, the offense was a disaster. The Wizards had no rhythm, and then they stopped moving the ball.
But for the most part, the Wizards continued to defend. They continued to own the boards in this series, outrebounding Boston 46-37. And they scored 48 points in the paint to Boston’s 26. Unlike in the past, the Wizards did a decent job of not letting bad shooting affect their defensive effort. It helped that the Celtics were just as flat offensively, but the Wizards did plenty to get stops. Instead of falling behind by double figures during their struggles, the Wizards never trailed by more than six.
It led to the best fourth quarter of the series, an extraordinary final period of shot making that seemingly came out of nowhere.
And then there was Wall, rising up, ignoring his poor shooting and making the biggest shot of his career.
There’s one rule to wearing black to a game: Don’t lose. Don’t try to bury someone who’s still alive and strong enough to resist.
Wall, as tough as they come, resisted. And, for sure, the Wizards are still alive.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.