John Wall leapt from his seat and ran toward a growing mass of players gathered around Paul Pierce. The Washington Wizards veteran had just terminated the Atlanta Hawks' comeback hopes and cemented a 103–101 Game 3 win.
Wall jumped toward the pile and used his right hand to search out teammates, offering strong high fives or enthusiastic pats on the back as his injured left hand and wrist lingered at his side.
Numbers suggested that the Wizards were at their absolute worst without Wall, yet they managed to hold on after nearly blowing a 21-point fourth-quarter lead. Pierce's heroics saved Washington from an epic collapse. Still, he responded as if there was never a hint of doubt in his mind. This was why Pierce was in Washington after all, as he is wont to explain to anyone willing to listen.
"What more could you ask for?" Pierce asked during an ESPN broadcast. "You got Truth at the elbow with the game on the line."
This show of bravado continued as Pierce was asked if he called bank on the shot that careened off the backboard and into the net.
"I called game," Pierce responded. "Game."
[daily_cut.NBA]While the confidence from Pierce is warranted, this was not what the Wizards envisioned. Not long before Pierce lifted it to victory after a horrid fourth quarter, Washington held a comfortable lead. The Wizards were in the driver's seat all night. Pushed hard by the Hawks reserves, the Wizards were lucky to pull out a win in yet another game without Wall. Whether Washington can manufacture more victories without the team's star is yet to be seen, and mystery still surrounds Wall's return.
The Wizards, who were only 10-40 in games without Wall during his five-year career, picked up a critical playoff victory by committee. While Bradley Beal shouldered most of the load, he had help all over the floor. The ageless Pierce provided the finishing touch, Marcin Gortat added toughness in the post, and Otto Porter and Ramon Sessions offered solid perimeter play.
Implored to do more, Nene also emerged with his best game of these playoffs. He posted 13 points and four rebounds on 6-of-8 shooting in his first 16 minutes on Saturday. He finished the day with 17 points and seven rebounds after he collected only two points and seven rebounds over the first two games of the series.
The Wizards needed every bit of production they could muster, as Wizards coach Randy Wittman told ESPN's Chris Broussard when asked how it banded together without Wall.
"Collectively, we talked about we gotta play as one," Wittman said during an ESPN broadcast. "Not one guy is going to carry us. We had to come together as one unit."
Five Wizards players scored in double figures, and all nine who touched the floor produced a point. In fact, even Will Bynum, who was recently added the active roster, hit critical free throws late in the game. Washington's team-first approach looked more like what we had come to expect from the Hawks, who won 60 games thanks to one of the NBA's most efficient offenses.
Atlanta hasn't played its best in the postseason, as poor shooting and sluggish starts have plagued the Hawks. One of Atlanta's biggest issues all playoffs has been its bench scoring. The Hawks starters have not played perfect basketball, but they have kept the team afloat.
Roles reversed on Sunday, when the Hawks bench erased the 21-point deficit to contend down the stretch of the fourth quarter. Their defense exposed the Wizards' lack of offensive firepower, and Mike Scott and Dennis Schroder's offense gave them a chance to win. Scott hit two major three-pointers and Schroder, who scored 16 points in the fourth quarter, found Mike Muscala for a three-pointer to tie the game at 101.
Washington's struggle to produce winning plays should have been expected without Wall, because his value is in his offensive creativity. And, boy, did he create for the Wizards this season. Wall posted a 44.6% assist ratio in the regular season, meaning almost half the team's field goals were produced from Wall passes. Wall also averaged 17.4 points, 12.6 assists, and 4.6 rebounds in the postseason.
What's more, the Wizards were just better when Wall was there to push the pace on offense and hawk opponents on defense. The Wizards had a 103.4 offensive rating and 98.1 defensive rating with Wall on the court in the regular season. Without him that dropped to 97.6 and 104.8.
The offensive advantages of having Wall were even more obvious during the playoffs. Washington had a 115.7 offensive rating and 100.1 defensive rating with Wall. When he sat that became 96.0 and 95.5. Asked if he had made steps toward a return, Wall remained unsure and said he hadn't tried to dribble the ball.
"No, not yet, just trying to let the swelling keep getting down" Wall said during an ESPN broadcast. "The pain is still there a little bit, but I'm just taking it day by day and hopefully the next two or three days I can be able to try to dribble."
Wall did leave the door open for a return, pointing out that he played through the injury. "It's kind of funny, because I finished Game 1 with all my adrenaline going and all my fractures were there then," Wall said.
Washington didn't know how to play without Wall due to the fact that he had played in 219 straight regular season games before resting at the end of April. They quickly learned that the collective approach was the best, and Pierce provided the decisive dagger.