The shot of the playoffs was a losing proposition. No defense should want John Wall taking any shot with the game on the line, but many might live with this one: a deep, pull-up three taken well beyond the arc, with Avery Bradley close enough to offer an honest contest. It’s the kind of look that would allow opposing coaches to sleep at night. Boston had denied and denied and denied Bradley Beal to the point that this unbelievable possession was almost upended by a five-second violation. The circumstances required Wall to tiptoe the sideline out well past the hash mark before he received the ball, and that he was moving away from the basket allowed the entire defense to set.
No defender got beat. No one lost track of their man. Wall—a 29.9% shooter on pull-up threes in the regular season and even worse in these playoffs—just rose up because he had the room and he had the nerve. His team is still alive because of it.
Washington’s 92-91 win to stave off elimination was unquestionably the game of these playoffs, and this was their moment. Wall didn’t need a shot like this one to cement his stardom, but the iconography doesn’t hurt. His home crowd stood in wonder as the shot left his fingertips. Wall held his follow-through. Then he basked in the moment, stone-faced—the coolest individual at the heart of an eruption.
Once Washington sealed up the win with one more stop, Wall mounted the scorer’s table to lay claim to what was his. He let it all fly.
Wall’s jumper, not unlike the Al Horford banker or the Bradley Beal three-pointer or the Isaiah Thomas miracle that preceded it, was the kind of gut-check moment rare in these playoffs. Even the best games thus far have been waged in 20-point runs. We’ve seen the Warriors and Cavaliers exercise their dominance. Thursday showcased the Spurs system at the height of its powers. This elimination game was riveting precisely because it was messy—all bungled layups and airballed jumpers until both teams finally found their bearings. There is an inevitability to Thomas. He would have his moment in this game and did, first by stretching Boston’s lead to five with 1:34 remaining and then by scrambling to set up Horford for a go-ahead bucket in the final 10 seconds.
Those are the plays that get scrubbed from highlights. Years from now, Wall’s shot will live on. The broadcast of every hard-fought game he’s involved in will roll back the footage as the Wizards come out of a timeout, reminding of the unforgettable. Wall won’t just be the fly-by athlete or the incisive passer or the bold competitor. He will forever be the man who, in what could have been the final moments of his season, made that shot. He could have missed. Hell, he should have missed. The daring is what makes it—and Wall—so indelible. Wall got that kind of moment because he is precisely that kind of player.
There could be no more marvelous end to an ugly win. And to think: This wasn’t Wall’s night. Too many of his early drives had ended with Wall on his back, having shorted a layup in traffic. When he did manage to clear the defense into an open lane, Wall smoked some of his finishes all the same. In the first half, he missed eight of his nine shots, four of which came right at the rim. Maybe the thought of them sat in the back of Wall’s mind on his final possession. The shot he took is the kind a player takes when either everything is working or nothing is. Wall’s performance spanned both ends of that spectrum; Washington would not have made its second-half runs without Wall, and yet its first-half woes very much featured him. His resolution was a long shot that utilized little of what Wall does so well. Somehow, it still captured the essence of his defiant stardom.
We won’t know until Monday whether the Wizards’ season was truly saved or merely sustained through the weekend. That the ball is still in the air, however, is a gift. Wall, Thomas, and two teams that loathe one another will play in a must-watch Game 7. “That’s where all the great players make their name,” Thomas said. True enough, with one clarification: Wall has already made his.