WASHINGTON – This building never experienced euphoria like this, never shook as if the fault lines beneath were about to separate with seismic force. This building was always silenced by being on the wrong end of Dwyane Wade‘s superstar turn, of LeBron James‘ birth as a dream killer, of David West‘s soul-crushing step-back jumpers and of Paul Pierce briefly contemplating retirement after a 3-pointer fell a wee bit too late. Washington’s basketball franchise had seen its postseason end at home, in heartbreak, seven straight times – with the last six of those gut-wrenching losses coming at Verizon Center.
John Wall wouldn’t let the fans go home unhappy again. Wall gave them a gift that they will remember no matter how this series ends, an unexpected 3-pointer that gave the Wizards a 92-91 victory over the Boston Celtics that forced a Game 7 on Monday at TD Garden. He allowed them to party and postpone the sadness for another day, and perhaps someplace else. His exuberance after burying a shot that buried both an overconfident opponent and what some fans had deemed a decades-long curse may have appeared to be an overreaction because the Wizards’ job still isn’t done. But Wall wanted these fans to know that he was with them, that their past pain was also his. The emotion rained down from the scorer’s table and the love was returned skyward.
“It was for how much love I have for this city,” Wall said, “how much love I have for my teammates, how much fight we have. Never quitting. A lot of people doubted us in this series after going down 2-0. A lot of people doubted us winning at home.”
The Wizards, and their fans, were once again teetering toward accepting misery after Al Horford appeared to call game with 7.9 seconds left, even if he didn’t call glass. But while Horford went to the window, the Wizards went to the Wall. Wall made the shot that he was once too scared to take. Those who were standing by the scorer’s table, praising his heroics or capturing his animated celebration on their smartphones, probably don’t remember or don’t care about where Wall was as a rookie. He was so unsure of himself and his then-sketchy jumper that his teammates once had to scream at him to shoot in clutch situations — when opponents were content with daring the speed demon to fire away.
Wall has come a long way in seven seasons, but his decorated career was still missing a signature game-winner, still missing that moment that he had prepared for through hours of confidence-building practice. Even still, few could’ve expected that he would’ve pulled up from where he did on Friday night. Avery Bradley gave him room, feet pressed on the 3-point line, fearing that Wall would turn on the jets. A tie would’ve sufficed, extending the season for at least another five minutes. Wall wanted a Game 7, or to go home knowing that he took a chance on himself, that he took a chance on his jumper. When the shot dropped, he restrained from overreacting because there were still 3.5 seconds to go and Isaiah Thomas was on the other side, willing and eager to add his name to the list of players who have used the Wizards as a stepping stone to greater postseason success.
But this wasn’t going to be the night. History had to shine down on the Wizards one time, even if it’s only the second round. And when Thomas’ shot went sideways, Wall hurdled the scorer’s table and shouted his love to his adopted home, pointing toward the floor and pulling his jersey free in a spirited rant. There is another game to played, on Monday, in Boston, a place where the Wizards have lost all five times they’ve played this season. Worrying about solving that will come at another time, once Wall and the Wizards have celebrated snapping an ignominious streak that extends back to a time when only three players on the roster were alive.
Wall and his backcourt mate, Bradley Beal, were too young to truly understand the weight of the moment for the city, for its tormented fans. Neither had been born the last time Washington’s basketball franchise staved off elimination at home, back in 1988, when the team was called the Bullets. The losing streak wouldn’t have been so depressing if it hadn’t also meant that the franchise had only made seven playoff appearances in 29 years.
Beal hadn’t even started elementary school when Michael Jordan completed a sweep of Chris Webber and Juwan Howard in 1997 and declared them a team of the future. Wall was a teenager when Shaquille O’Neal sat out with injury and let Wade lead a second-round sweep in 2005; and in 2006, when James tapped Gilbert Arenas on the chest, told him that if he missed two late free throws, he was going home. Arenas inexplicably missed both, and Damon Jones hit a game-winning jumper that would end the Wizards’ best chance in three straight playoff defeats to James.
After another long postseason drought for the franchise, Wall and Beal fulfilled their promise as high draft picks but suffered their first playoff defeat to top-seeded Indiana in 2014. West stopped messing around with the playoff neophytes and hit a string of lethal jumpers that led Beal to bury his head in the chest of then-assistant coach Sam Cassell and weep. The next year, they were thisclose to forcing overtime against the top seeded Hawks – and Horford – but Pierce’s shot was a tenth of a second too late. On Friday, defeat appeared imminent when the Celtics had a five-point lead and the ball with 85 seconds remaining after Wall was called for an offensive foul.
Perhaps it was fitting that Cassell, a Baltimore native and current Los Angeles Clippers assistant, was in attendance to witness his former pupils coming into their own in a shared moment of defiance. The Wizards blitzed Thomas, forcing a steal that led to Beal hitting his only 3-pointer of the game, then Wall blocked a Thomas jumper and made two free throws to erase the deficit in just 45 seconds. Cassell would only say afterward that he was proud to see their growth.
Beal scored a game-high 33 points, sitting at the podium in a sweatshirt with the four-letter word that represented what he and Wall gave the team: Life. But the folks in the arena will forever remember how Wall made the biggest shot since the Wizards started playing basketball in the District’s Chinatown. Wall has been begging for respect and the Celtics gave him the ultimate fuel when Boston players arrived dressed in black funeral attire, preparing to bury an opponent with whom they’ve had a bitter feud all season. They weren’t prepared for Wall to bring the shovel.
The Wizards have attempted to abandon that negative past and adopted a different mentality by embracing the nickname, Death Row DC, after the gangsta rap label. They’ve made T-shirts, taken on nicknames from its roster of hip-hop legends. And Wall even had his own response to the Celtics after getting wind of the all-black plan by listening to friends and family. Dave Best, the Wizards’ imposing security guard, goes by the nickname “Suge Knight” and he shadowed Wall wearing the blood-red suit popularized by the label head. Afterward, Wall — who goes by “Tupac” in this scenario — wouldn’t admit to purchasing the suit, joking that Best “saved up all year for it.”
But Wall made it clear that he wasn’t a fan of the Celtics borrowing their stunt – in a playoff game no less. He called the act “funny” and stated in a television interview: “I ain’t going home. Don’t come to my city, wearing all black, talking about it’s a funeral. We worked too hard for this.”
Markieff Morrris, who helped create the new identity for the Wizards in an effort to command some respect, said the Celtics “are just trying to be like us. They want to be like us so bad. They can’t. There’s only one Death Row DC and they can’t do it like we can do it.”
Rallying behind this team hasn’t been easy for a city filled with locals accustomed to agony and transplants who have no desire to pal around with lousy. But Wall and the Wizards want their fans to believe. He has already declared that this season is a failure if the Wizards don’t advance to the Eastern Conference finals. He has one more game to make that happen, the franchise’s first Game 7 since 1979. But first, Wall just needed one night to simply enjoy his moment — to hit a three, hop on a table and declare his love for his city.
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