WASHINGTON D.C.— The crowd was on their feet, squeezing every last ounce of oxygen from their lungs as loudly as possible. Red, white and blue streamers rained down from overhead as the object of everyone’s affection, Wizards point guard John Wall, hopped atop the scorer’s table and faced his fans. They reached toward Wall as if they were hoping to each preserve a piece of him for posterity, so this moment would last forever. Wall alternated between pumping his fists up and down and grabbing the word “Washington” across the front of his jersey and holding it out to the celebrating masses.
A city where sports fans were starving for a good moment got a great one tonight thanks to Wall, as his long three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left gave the Wizards a 92-91 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Washington’s victory evens the series at three games apiece, and sets up a decisive Game 7 in Boston on Monday (8:00 PM ET, TNT).
“To get on the scorer’s table, it was how much love I have for this city, how much love I have for my teammates, how much fight we have,” said Wall. “Never quitting.”
The game’s first three and a half quarters weren’t much to remember, as neither team shot the ball particularly well. Boston’s Isaiah Thomas got going in the second half, scoring 17 of his 27 points, and Wall and Bradley Beal kept the Wizards in the game, manufacturing ad hoc buckets in a static half-court offense that couldn’t find any rhythm.
With the game tied at 82 and just over two minutes remaining, Thomas, who earned the nickname “Mr. Fourth Quarter,” got busy. First he knocked down a step back jumper from the right side, and then hit a three from the right corner. The Celtics had an 87-82 lead with the ball and ninety seconds left. The Wizards then trapped Thomas, forcing a turnover, and Beal nailed a three in transition. Moments later, Wall hit two free throws to tie the game at 87.
After Avery Bradley and Beal traded jumpers, Al Horford banked in a shot from the wing to give Boston a 91-89 lead with 7.7 seconds left. The Wizards called timeout and set up a play to get the ball to Beal at the top of the key. But Boston’s Marcus Smart disrupted Beal’s path around a Marcin Gortat pick, leaving inbounds passer Otto Porter standing helplessly along the sideline with the ball in his hands and the five second count ticking perilously low. Wall pounded two left-handed dribbles before rising over Boston’s Avery Bradley and sinking what was about a 26-footer from the right wing.
“I didn’t want to get a five-second violation,” said Wall, “so I came and got the ball from Otto, and looked the defender in the eye and took a shot I work on, and it went in.”
Bradley jumped out at Wall and contested the shot, which still hit nothing but net.
“We had our best on-ball defender on their All-Star,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens. “We’re going to guard it as hard as we can and shake his hand and move on.”
Despite a slow start—Wall scored 23 of his 26 points in the second half—Wall stepped into the game-winner and drained it with confidence.
“When I played,” said Washington coach Scott Brooks, “if I missed two shots, I didn’t think I was going to make the next shot. But he’s a winner and he plays to win. He’s not worried about his stats, he’s worried about winning the game.”
Wall and Beal ended up combining for 59 points and playing 85 minutes between them. The Celtics managed to mostly slow down the Wizards’ attack, holding them to just eight fast break points. But Washington again won the battle of the boards, outrebounding Boston 46-37. Still, with Washington making just 5 of their 24 three-point attempts and making only 61-percent of their free throws, the Celtics felt as though they allowed the opportunity to close out the series slip away.
“That was definitely tough for us,” said Horford. “After feeling that we had the game under wraps, but this is a good learning experience for our group. You know, on the road, trying to close out a series against a good team. There are certain things that we’ll look back and we’ll learn from and we’ll be better.”
The Celtics players each arrived tonight wearing black, in what seemed to be a callback to the regular season game a few months ago when the Wizards wore all black to what they called a “funeral” game for the Celtics. The Wizards won that game; the Celtics lost tonight. While the Celtics downplayed it postgame, Wall drew attention to it in his walk off interview, saying, “Don’t come to my city wearing all black talking about it’s a funeral.”
“He put us on his back,” said Morris, “and that’s why he’s a superstar.”
For now, the Celtics and the Wizards live to play at least one more game. On Monday night, Boston and Washington will play for the 11th time this season; in the previous ten games, the home team has won each time. In Game 7, one team will make history, the other will go home.
“That’s where all the great players make their name,” said Thomas when asked about Game 7. “That’s where legends are born. We are excited. It hurts right now because we just lost, but we have nothing to our heads down about. We are going to take a few days to figure out our adjustments and then win Game 7.”
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