The Washington Wizards usually put the ball in John Wall’s hands in these situations late in the fourth quarter, but the all-star point guard was watching from the bench in a suit with five fractures in his left hand and wrist. So with the final seconds ticking away at Verizon Center on Saturday night, it was on Pierce, the postseason finisher, to save them from an epic fourth-quarter collapse in Game 3 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The play was designed to create a mismatch, and Pierce had it with Atlanta Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder, standing five inches shorter, lodged on his hip. Pierce then delivered his patented step-back jumper from the elbow, a shot he practices over Marcin Gortat every day, that banked off the backboard and through the basket to add another playoff moment to his resume and lift the Wizards to a 103-101 triumph.
Pierce admitted he didn’t call bank. “I called game,” he said.
And just like that the Wizards’ 21-point, fourth-quarter collapse became a footnote and the top-seeded Hawks were left stunned and suddenly facing a 2-1 deficit in this series against a team without its best player. The result was Washington’s first home victory in the Eastern Conference semifinals since 1979, snapping a strange seven-game losing streak.
“These are the moments why you have a guy like him,” Coach Randy Wittman said.
Red T-shirts reading “Why not us?” hung at each locker in the home team’s dressing room Wednesday morning, waiting for the Wizards to arrive for treatment and voluntary workouts after they split the initial two games with the Hawks in Atlanta.
It was Pierce who first wondered “Why not us?” when he arrived in the District for training camp in late September. He looked around the shifted Eastern Conference landscape and thought his new team had as good a shot as any to reign supreme. He and the Wizards continue to wonder. Wittman reintroduced the rallying cry in a speech before the Wizards’ Game 2 loss, their first of the postseason, Tuesday. It is a motto the Wizards have embraced and repeated to deflect the season-torpedoing blow they were dealt this week.
They lost Wall, their best player, for the foreseeable future to a deflating injury, but they have remained confident they still can topple the top-seeded Hawks, winners of 60 regular season games, and advance to their first conference finals in 36 years.
“I was getting tired of getting all the text messages and hearing, ‘Oh, man, what are you guys going to do?’ ” forward Drew Gooden III said. “What are we supposed to do? We still have confidence in our guys.”
The confidence oozed for the initial 40 minutes Saturday as the Wizards assumed the formula the Hawks utilized so magnificently during the regular season, one centered on ball movement, spacing and staunch defense without orbiting around a single superstar.
The usually reserved Otto Porter Jr., swagger dripping, dunked and howled. The usually placid Beal scowled. The recently dormant Nene emerged from hibernation, and Wall watched from the bench in a suit decorated with a purple carnation, coaching at each whistle and celebrating with each highlight in front of a rambunctious capacity crowd as the Wizards built a 21-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Wizards accumulated 27 assists on 37 field goals. They went 10 for 28 from behind the three-point line and outscored the Hawks 25-11 on fast breaks even without Wall setting the pace with his all-world speed. Five Wizards scored in double figures.
Nene, Beal, and Porter led them with 17 points apiece. Beal assumed more ballhandling responsibilities without Wall and added eight assists, and Porter grabbed a team-high nine rebounds. Jeff Teague, who was assessed both flagrant-1 and technical fouls, and Schroder paced the Hawks with 18 points each. Paul Millsap came off the bench because of flu-like symptoms and was held to eight points and two rebounds.
With Millsap on the bench, Nene ignited the Wizards early. After scoring two points on 0-for-9 shooting in the series’s first two games, Nene missed his first field goal attempt before making his next six, including four in the first quarter as the Wizards moved out to a 10-point advantage — just the second time Washington had held a lead after the first period this postseason. He had 13 points by halftime, more than in any other playoff game this season.
“That is the Nene that we need each and every game, that guy that no one can guard,” Beal said. “It doesn’t matter who you put on him.”
The momentum carried into the fourth quarter, when it all nearly crumbled. Leading by 20 points with under eight minutes remaining, the Wizards’ offense stagnated against a Hawks lineup filled with reserves. The backups led a 17-0 run, and with 14.1 seconds left, Mike Muscala’s three-pointer tied the game at 101.
Then Wittman called a timeout and, understanding the weapon that sat in front of him, drew up a play they had installed at practice just the day before for this exact situation. Then Pierce delivered.
“I wish it didn’t come down to it,” said Pierce, one of two NBA players with multiple game-winning postseason buzzer-beaters over the last decade. “Usually I like to save those types of shots for later rounds.”