John Wall didn’t just recognize the pressure of an elimination game. He embraced it. Sought out its white-hot spotlight and stood alone under its glare. On the morning of Game 6, Wall told reporters he needed to “control” the moment.
On Friday night, when that moment arose with less than four seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Wall owned it, hitting the game-winning three-pointer in the Washington Wizards’ 92-91 win over the Boston Celtics. After a season in which the seeds of rivalry have blossomed between the two teams, there will be a decisive Game 7 on Monday night in Boston.
“The NBA world wanted to see it,” Wall said. “Both teams wanted to see it. It’s only right.”
And it was only right that the man who has lived through some of the franchise’s worst moments, his sulking demeanor and “over-it” expression becoming a meme of Wizards futility, made arguably the most clutch shot in franchise history.
Wall was not efficient, shooting just 9 for 25 from the field, but he traded his broken jumper for deadly daggers when the game counted. With Boston ahead by two points on the Wizards’ final possession, Wall stepped into franchise lore. The Celtics’ swarming defense broke up the original plan, and Washington nearly committed a five-second violation before Wall took the inbounds pass. Under Coach Scott Brooks, when the Wizards have been down two late in games this season, the general move is to get something at the rim: Get fouled, tie the game, keep it simple.
Wall had other ideas.
Backup point guard Trey Burke watched the play unfold from the Wizards’ bench. “They denied everybody,” he said. “John came to the rescue.”
Wall squared up the Celtics’ best defender, Avery Bradley. With no doubt in his mind that he was taking the shot, Wall pulled up from 26 feet and delivered Wizards fans from their angst. Elimination be damned. Hello, Game 7.
“That was unbelievable,” Markieff Morris said. “John made a big shot — probably the biggest shot of my career. And we’re going to Game 7 in Boston.
“He put us on his back, and that’s why he’s a superstar.”
Only 48 hours after Verizon Center became the final resting place for the Washington Capitals’ 2016-17 season, the Celtics, at least most of them, wore black to the building as if players would be attending another funeral. The not-so-subtle jab mimicked Washington’s all-black wardrobe ahead of the Jan. 24 matchup, but Wall heard about the fashion statement and was not pleased.
“It was just funny to me,” he cracked in the postgame after Boston players had to wear their black clothes to the bus. “It was in my mind throughout the game that I didn’t want them to come here with all black and call it a funeral and lose at home.”
There was no mourning at the end. Streamers fell, and Wall rushed to his family seated courtside, then jumped atop the scorer’s table to proclaim the night — and the city — as his own.
“You jumped on the scorer’s table?!” Bradley Beal admonished his teammate, shaking his head in mock disgust as Wall sheepishly grinned.
In a tightly contested final quarter with eight lead changes, the Wizards responded with the best defense and the biggest shots. Washington trailed 87-82 with 1:34 remaining but responded by trapping Isaiah Thomas and forcing a turnover. Beal, who kept the Wizards alive with 13 of his game-high 33 points in the fourth quarter, then hit his first three-pointer of the game after missing seven straight.
With less than a minute to play, Wall drew the Wizards even after blocking Thomas’s three-point attempt, then drawing a foul and making both shots. Wall finished with 26 points and eight assists.
Even though the franchise had lost seven straight elimination games on its home floor, these Wizards clung to the recent past.
During the regular season, they won 30 games at Verizon Center, including a stretch of 17 straight. On top of that, they were the only team in the playoffs to win five games at home entering Friday.
Despite the comfort of home, the Wizards looked out of sorts at times. Even though Boston shot just 23.5 percent in the first quarter, Washington could not take advantage and scored just 22 points. While the Wizards had the appearance of good ball movement — they had assists on all 10 field goals — the offense lacked a certain beat. More specifically, the offense missed Wall.
Although effective in his point guard role with six assists in the opening quarter, Wall struggled to find his shot. Over the past three games, this has been a problem, and on Friday night Wall opened on a 1-for-12 cold stretch that lasted into the second half.
Despite a lack of scoring from Wall and the game’s slow pace, the Wizards managed to open a 40-30 lead in the second quarter. Then, when an elbow veered high, the game turned.
With 3:46 remaining in the first half, Morris attempted to box out Boston rookie Jaylen Brown but tagged him with a left elbow to the face. Morris received a common foul, starting a trend of infractions and turnovers that led to a 10-0 Boston run. The Celtics moved ahead by intermission 42-41, with Bradley’s backdoor cut and alley-oop finish catching Wall napping on the baseline.
Wall awakened on offense in the third quarter, draining three consecutive shots and showing some passion after drilling a corner three over Al Horford. Even so, the Celtics still led 69-66 entering the final quarter.
With the threat of elimination looming, the Wizards showed resilience, and Wall welcomed the pressure.
“I’m enjoying the moment right now,” Wall said.