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John Wall, Jason Smith reflect on third anniversary of Game 6 winner against Celtics
On Tuesday night, John Wall and Jason Smith reunited over Zoom to look back on the Wizards’ Game 6 win over the Celtics in second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on the third anniversary of Wall’s game-winning 3-pointer. Wall and Smith talked about the built-up friction with the Celtics, overcoming a slow start to the game, what went into the winning play and how much they enjoyed being a part of that team. Wizards head coach Scott Brooks also made a surprise appearance to catch up with the guys and talk about the season leading up to the playoff series with Boston.
The anniversary special streamed on Facebook Live and can be watched in full below.
Wall, Smith and Brooks looked back on the season that got them there, a season they agreed was one of their favorites they had ever been a part of. The Wizards’ core had experience under its belt and a collection of veterans with playoff experience, but the team got off to a slow start, going 2-8 in the first 10 games of the season.
“I knew with our talent base and our work habits, we were going to turn it around,” Brooks said. “The crazy thing is, after that bad start and then over the next 10 or 15 games, we were playing .500 and then it clicked. That’s when we went on a [22-5] run just beating everybody. Back-to-backs, overtime wins and just playing extremely well. Everybody was unselfish. The ball was flying all over the court.”
The Wizards finished the season 49-33, fourth in the Eastern Conference, and matched up with the five seed Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Wall said he went into the series with an extra bit of motivation, remembering two years prior, he was limited with a hand injury and lost to the Hawks in the first round. The 2017 series went differently. The series was dominated at first by home court advantage, the home team winning the first five games with only one game decided by fewer than five points – Washington’s 103-99 win in Game 5. Up 3-2 going into Game 6, Wall took over, scoring 42 points to lead the Wizards to a 16-point win to advance to the second round. Wall averaged 29.5 points and 10.3 assists in the six-game series.
Then it was on to Boston, and the Wizards knew a hard-fought series sat on the horizon. Wall said the angst between the two teams dated back to summer workouts in the offseason prior and were fueled when Wall and Boston’s Jae Crowder got into it following a game earlier that season.
“From that point forward, I was like ‘this is a rivalry,’” Wall said.
The Wizards lost Game 1 despite starting the game on a 16-0 run. Wall attributed the loss to an inability to finish quarters strongly, but saw clearly that the Wizards had everything they needed to make the series competitive. Much like the first-round series against the Hawks, home court advantage reigned supreme against the Celtics.
“They fed off their crowd crazy,” Wall said. “Going into Game 2…that was a big game for (then Boston guard) Isaiah Thomas because his sister had just passed a day or two before, so that emotion and adrenaline was going off of all that. They won that one. I knew what it was for us going home. We’ve got Games 3 and 4 at home and I’m like ‘we should be up 2-0 or tied 1-1 right now.’ We know how they feed off their crowd and we feed off our crowd. I just felt that whole year when we went on that 17-game winning streak at home that when we got in front of our crowd, we were totally different.”
The Wizards came back home and took Games 3 and 4 by an average of 23.0 points per game. Game 4 was won mostly by a 26-0 Wizards run that made up most of the third quarter.
“That was one of the craziest runs in playoff history,” Wall said. “Everything was clicking. We were just there for each other.”
The Celtics won Game 5 handily in Boston, setting up Game 6 in D.C.
Coming into Game 6, the Celtics donned all black as they entered the arena, returning a gesture employed by the Wizards earlier in the season. Wall said word of the Celtics attire spread throughout the locker room pregame and added a little fuel to their fire. As if Wall needed any more motivation, he said he had been thinking about how he had seen the Wizards’ seasons end in two earlier years on home playoff losses to the Pacers and Hawks and how determined he was to prevent history from repeating itself.
The Wizards led after one quarter and trailed by just one at halftime despite Wall’s inability to get going from the field. He shot 1-9 (.111) from the field in the first half, but registered six assists, no turnovers and was plus-four in 20 minutes of action.
“I don’t let scoring impact my whole game,” Wall said. “There are other things you can do to win”
With the Celtics up five and just over a minute left in the game, Bradley Beal hit his first 3-pointer of the night, snapping an 0-8 drought to start the game. Wall made a pair of free throws to tie the game. Avery Bradley and Beal traded buckets on ensuing possessions before Al Horford hit a difficult mid-range bank shot to put the Celtics up by two with seven seconds left.
“We go to timeout,” Wall said. “We already knew what play we were going with. Coach Brooks had one play he drew up at the end of games for a three. I go to the corner and (Marcin) Gortat goes to pin down for Brad to come up for a three. I’m in the corner waiting and I just see that [Brad’s] not getting open…I just run and get the ball from Otto (Porter Jr.), tip-toeing basically on the sideline and I’m just looking like ‘it’s either win or go home.’ I see Avery Bradley’s backing up and he’s a great defender. He’s a great on-ball defender. He’d been tough the whole series. It’s a shot I work on every day and I just took a hesitation three. In my mind, when I’m hesitating, at the same time, Brad’s getting open on the flare. I don’t know if I have enough time for that pass. So I take the shot and it goes in.”
“I was sitting on the bench,” Smith said. “You knew exactly what the play was...You took the initiative, you go get the ball, you’ve got about three or four seconds, you come off, you see (Avery) Bradley, one of the best on-ball defenders in the league in a playoff-style atmosphere. You see him backing up, he’s on his heels, you rise up it’s in the air – I swear to go, the crowd – pure silence.”
“And then I make it,” Wall said. “And you know, after you make a shot like that, you always look back to see if they’re going to call a timeout or if they’re just going to push it. I remember in college, I hit a shot like that and I just ran back and I didn’t know what was going on, running around like the game was over. They could have thrown the ball in and scored so I looked back and they called timeout. I just got a serious look on my face like ‘I’m not going home.’ But I knew we still had like 2.3 seconds left and you never know what happens in these miraculous games. Even the shot Isaiah took (at the buzzer), I was like ‘please don’t go in.’”
I was like damn LOL. Our all black clothes didn’t work lol https://t.co/9fhocqn0ts— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) May 12, 2020
The Wizards won, forced a Game 7 and Wall’s shot has gone down as one of the Wizards’ most memorable moments in franchise history. Boston went on to win the series and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, but Wizards players up and down the roster rave about that year’s group, what it meant to be a part of the team and how much fun the ride was.
“I’ve been here 10 years, going on 11,” Wall said. “Like I told y’all before, just all the stuff I’ve been through from my first couple years being there and then having great veterans come around and people understanding what their role was and accepting it and just playing. That’s the most fun I’ve had playing basketball since I was in college.”
“That was one of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of, top to bottom,” Smith said. “One through 15, man.”
Before closing out their Zoom session, Smith asked Wall for an update on how he’s passing the time. Wall said his days are starting earlier than ever has he cares for his one-year old son, but that he’s managed to get plenty of shots up on his home court. Wall said he’s returned to classes, showing off a personal finance textbook, and is working toward his degree from the University of Kentucky after taking time off following the passing of his mother.
Regarding his return to the court, Wall said: “I feel 110%...I’m going to write a book or have a documentary about it because I don’t think people understand what I had to go through to get through games and stuff. When people say I don’t love the game, I don’t pay it no mind because I know that guys that play with me respect me. My body is great, man. I did everything I was supposed to making sure I’m right and I can’t wait to get back to play. I can’t wait to get back to play. I hear all these comments about ‘I’m done.’ That does nothing but…fuel the fire. It makes me put notes in my phone that I read before every game. I can’t wait. I feel great.”