WASHINGTON — The history of D.C. sports is not a kind one, and on Wednesday another chapter was brewed after the Washington Capitals were booted out of the playoffs and the Wizards were manhandled by the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of their series.
Everyone knows the history. Nothing good happens here. It has been nearly three decades since this town has had a sports team that had some semblance of success.
The fanbase has been starving for years. Just a morsel — a sliver— of some sort of victory would be nice. But the well is dry and it’s been that way for as long as I can remember.
But on Friday night, with the entire world watching, John Wall hit a shot that washed all the anguish away, for one night, in a moment of radiance.
Wall’s three pointer to beat the Boston Celtics and force a decisive Game 7 was just the jolt Washington needed after years of ineptitude.
But to truly appreciate the moment, one must examine what came before. The Celtics had Washington dead to rights. With 1:34 left on the board, the Celtics took an 87-82 lead behind late game heroics from Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas darted away from a trap the Wizards were planning after Markieff Morris didn’t corral the ball quickly enough. Wall failed to get a hand up in time to stop Thomas from pulling up.
Thomas used that speed and quickness to destroy teams in the fourth quarter all season long, and for a moment it looked like the Wizards were going to be his next victim.
After that, a block call on Marcus Smart is reversed into a charge call on Wall after an official review. Celtics ball. The life is out of the building and in the hands of the Celtics. A small, but present, “Let’s go Celtics!” chant starts to rise up from the upper deck in the building.
“Their backs were against the wall,” Al Horford said.
How they turned it around
Like any animal threatened with its back against the wall, the Wizards scratched, clawed and fought to make it a game again. On the next offensive possession for Boston, the Celtics ran a high screen and roll play for Isaiah Thomas with Jae Crowder as his screener.
The Wizards blitz Thomas immediately with the ball and took away his easiest pass.
The plan, Bradley Beal said, was to “blitz him regardless” of what the play was when he got the ball. Thomas said he had “nowhere to go” on the play. There is a wide open man in the corner, but Thomas is far too small to get the ball to that spot on a single pass.
“They took away the next pass,” Thomas said. “They hadn’t really been doing that all game and we weren’t alert. I wasn’t alert. I’ve got to do a better job in that situation.”
The Wizards were able to push the ball down the floor for a good look at a Beal three the next play down. They weren’t able to get a good contest in transition and he drained it.
Then, the next possession down, Wall gets a block on Isaiah Thomas after a three point attempt late in the shot clock.
After that, Wall attacked Avery Bradley and Thomas at the rim. He got to the free throw line and knotted the game up at 87 with two free throw attempts.
Two huge defensive stands put the Wizards right back in the thick of things when all hope looked lost. After losing a five point lead, Horford said the Celtics felt they did not capitalize on the opportunity at hand. It was in their grasp, and they lost it. They blew the game.
“That was tough for us, after feeling we had the game in the wraps,” Al Horford said. “This is a learning experience for us.”
Wall has never been a prolific three point shooter throughout his career. He is more streaky than anything else, and walking into his game winner he was 1-4 from deep in this game.
That shot was really a win for the Boston Celtics and their defense. It just happened to go in.
“A great shot by a great player. Hats off to him. That was a huge shot,” Stevens said.
It was, indeed, a great shot and a difficult take. But it wasn’t what was planned at all. So what was the play?
“I don’t even remember the play,” Morris said. “I know when he got the ball, he was shooting.”
Wall said the play was originally intended for Beal to get a look from deep cutting back to the center of the court, but Marcus Smart made sure that didn’t happen. He waited for Beal at the top of the screen and denied him of the ball completely.
On the brink of a five second violation, Wall said his first reaction was to come and get the ball from Otto Porter on the inbound.
“He didn’t get the opportunity to get open. I didn’t want to get a five second violation,” Wall said. “I looked the defender in the eye and took a shot I worked on, and it went in.”
The right wing and elbow area have been Wall’s bread and butter for years. The percentages show that still holds to be true. This season, Wall shot 38 percent from deep on the right wing. He doesn’t shoot better than 28 percent from anywhere else above the three point line.
This wasn’t a good shot to come up with, but it was the best shot the Wizards had. And it worked. It was in rhythm, and Wall is good at this shot.
Sometimes, as Stevens said, you have to tip your cap to the better player. And tonight, that player was Wall.
Perspective is everything. There is not one player on this roster who has had significant playoff minutes this deep into the postseason.
Marcin Gortat has his run with the Orlando Magic, but he was a role player. Wall, Beal, Oubre, Porter and Morris have all seen their fair share of big games in the NCAA tournament, but from a team standpoint, this was the most significant moment of their careers.
“Now, you talk about a pressure shot,” ESPN analyst Hubie Brown said after Wall hit the shot. “That was it.”
And was it ever. Before Wall hit that shot, the Wizards lost seven straight elimination games on their home floor. Colin Cowherd dropped another off-base critique on Wall the day before. The Celtics players wore all black to the game as a dig (even though they later denied it) at the Wizards. They had blown a 10 point lead in the first half and fell behind by as many as seven points in the second.
Everything — this game, this season, his legacy — was riding on Wall’s fingertips as he let the ball go. Swish. It drops through the net. The Wizards are up, 92-91. Ballgame.
As Wall always says, this is his city. But tonight, after that shot, he truly proved it was once and for all. He made as much clear in a postgame interview with Lisa Salters.
“I ain’t going home. Never come to my city, wearing all black talking about its a funeral,” Wall said. “We work too hard for this.”
So many times before, this city has seen failure in these situations. So many times, these Wizards have seen failure in this situation. So many times, this team’s core players have seen failure in this situation.
But for one night, #SoWizards did not strike. The basketball gods spared Washington and lifted the curse. For one night, the good guys truly prospered.
After the shot, during a Celtics timeout, Wall jumped on the scorer’s table. “This is my city,” he said. “This is my city.”
A declaration heard before, but everyone was in lockstep for once tonight. There is no more Alex Ovechkin. The time of Robert Griffin III has come and gone. Bryce Harper is still cool, but Kirk Cousins stinks.
This is a basketball town with a rich basketball history. This night is just one more chapter added on. No matter how the series ends up, this night will be historic.
But does that matter? For Wall, it doesn’t at all. Perspective is everything, but the only thing on his mind right now are two words: Game. Seven.
“I’m enjoying the moment right now. After tonight, I’m locked back in for Game 7,” Wall said. “I’ve got an important game on Monday to win.”