Through various points Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks, foul problems kept the Washington Wizards from sending their most formidable lineup to the court.
Then, in the closing moments of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series, there were the Wizards — complete and exulting in their 109-101 win over the Hawks.
“It’s great to have all five guys on the floor at the same time when we’re able to, you know we’re very successful,” Bradley Beal said. “Throughout the course of the game we weren’t worried at all because we weren’t playing good nor have we had our core guys on the floor at the same time.
“It’s just a matter of just being patient and just keeping ourselves in the game.”
With the starting unit together through the final 4:35 of the fourth quarter, Washington turned a tie game into a 2-0 series lead.
During the final quarter, John Wall scored eight of his game-high 32 points while Beal poured in 16 of his 31 points.
By the end, the “Rocky” anthem played over the Verizon Center loudspeakers — a theme song to a boxing movie even though the shadow of MMA hovered over the game.
A collective disdain for the officiating galvanized the announced capacity crowd of 20,356.
The resentment simmered early — Wall spent the end of the first quarter sharing his anger with official Marc Davis over what he felt were missed calls on his drives to the rim — then by the third quarter the frustration had reached a boiling point and sparked a salty chant from the Wizards’ faithful.
The early developments of the Wizards-Hawks series should have thrilled UFC President Dana White; both teams have given his league tons of free advertising.
After Game 1, Hawks forward Paul Millsap said the Wizards “were playing MMA.” Those comments didn’t sit well with Washington forward Markieff Morris, who warned Game 2 would be “double MMA.”
However, the officiating crew of Davis, Sean Corbin and David Guthrie made sure to keep the octagon off the court, calling a combined 55 fouls (29 on the Wizards). The Hawks attempted 38 free throws, and the Wizards shot 33.
“We fought through a lot of adversity, and the guys stuck together,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said, while protecting himself from making another donation to the NBA. Late in the second quarter, Brooks earned a technical foul that will result in a $2,000 fine.
Viewed through a different prism, Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer actually shared praise for the officiating.
“The officials did a good job tonight,” Budenholzer said. “It’s the playoffs. It’s physical.”
Both Morris and Otto Porter Jr. picked up their fourth fouls early in the third quarter. In less than four minutes, Washington had committed five fouls, which sparked a “Refs, You Suck!” serenade throughout the arena.
After losing their starting frontcourt, the Wizards lost their lead.
Washington held a 67-61 advantage with 6:28 to play in the quarter before Atlanta went on a 13-3 run.
Entering the final quarter, the Wizards trailed by four. Two key reserves changed the game.
Jason Smith worked all around the court, recording an assist, a block and a steal in the opening moments. Brandon Jennings transformed into a shot maker by drilling a couple midrange looks before setting up Smith for the game-tying dunk with 7:50 remaining.
Jennings finished with 10 points and Smith contributed eight to keep the Wizards in the game until the starters were able to assert control.
Beal entered the fourth quarter with a 6-for-18 shooting line but started things by scoring a layup off an assist by Smith.
By the midway point of the period, Beal knocked down a right corner three-pointer that not only gave the Wizards a 91-89 advantage but lifted the marksman out of a shooting funk.
“I’m proud of the way Brad played,” Brooks said. “Because he didn’t shoot the ball well, but he competed and he didn’t give in to a bad shooting night, and then it came around to him. The game rewards him. He made a big shot for us, that three in the right slot.”
“That’s one of the biggest things I’ve improved on,” Beal said, “handling adversity.”
In the final five minutes, the starting backcourt of Wall and Beal traded buckets, and when Wall soared in the open court for a dunk with 1:05 remaining, the Wizards seized the lead and broke free from the restraints of a closely officiated game.