The Washington Wizards have been the NBA’s perennial underachievers for decades, but don’t tell John Wall that.
To find the last season where the Wizards didn’t leave us asking for more, we have to go all the way back to 1978. The then-Washington Bullets went a measly 44-38 before storming through the playoffs and downing the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA Finals in seven games. On the shoulders of Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge, the Bullets became immortal for the first and last time. The following season was almost as sweet. After a 10-win improvement, Hayes and Dandridge led Washington to a second straight Finals appearance, and the Bullets did battle with the Sonics yet again. This time, fortunes reversed. Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson were nearly unstoppable, and Seattle reached the NBA’s pinnacle for the first and last time.
For the Wizards franchise, nothing’s been the same. They’ve wrestled with mediocrity ever since. Including this year, Washington has reached the playoffs 15 times, and each campaign has seen a first- or second-round exit. More times than not it’s been the former, but this year’s Wizards are different.
John Wall has become a full-fledged star. His dazzling passing and off-the-charts athleticism have skyrocketed him up the point guard rankings, and no other floor general in the Eastern Conference has been playing better than him. What’s ironic is that he’s been playing like this for the last three seasons, but the Wizards have, you guessed it, underachieved. They failed to make the playoffs in 2016 and lost in the Conference Semis in 2015 and 2014. The start of this season had “failure” written all over it after an abysmal 2-8 start. Since then, Scott Brooks and the Wizards have put everything together with the hopes of re-writing the franchise’s history books.
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The East is still the “LeBron James Conference.” Each year, we have a team or two who look like they can contend, but ultimately get picked apart by James. Boston is one, and, believe it or not, so is Washington. One of these two teams will get the chance to face Cleveland in the Conference Final, and the series between the two is tied at three games apiece after John Wall flattened every Washington basketball stereotype.
Both teams have combined to form a wildly underwhelming second-round series. The home team has won every game, and Game 6 was the first contest that was decided by single digits. It was awful. The Celtics showed up in all black just to barely shoot better than 40 percent from the field, and the Wizards decided to follow their lead. Boston’s dress code irked Wall, who voiced his disapproval after the game — and he could’ve said whatever he wanted.
Washington trailed at the half, 42-41, despite playing better basketball than the Celtics. The Wizards shot better (42.5 percent to 35.0), were sharing the rock (13 dimes to 10) and were more active on the glass (24-20). What did the Wizards in was going 6-of-13 from the foul line and committing eight turnovers, which generated Boston nine points. Wall was doing his best impression of James Harden and shot 1-of-9 in the first half and had just three points, but an aggressive John Wall doesn’t stay held in check for long. He was still imposing his will by getting teammates involved, and he was responsible for six of the Wizards’ assists. Bradley Beal benefitted greatly, and he shot 6-of-9 with 14 points.
He looked his critics dead in the face, flipped a switch and showed that there was no doubting him as the East’s best point guard — scratch that, Wall made them think that he’s the best guard in the NBA.
In the blink of an eye, he dropped 13 in the third. Washington’s offense came to a screeching halt outside of Wall, and they mustered 12 points. On top of that, the Wizards shot 10-of-27 as a group. And that included Wall’s 5-of-11. Boston outscored them by two with 27, and their offense ran with outstanding efficiency to give them a three-point lead going into the fourth. With the way the series has gone, Isaiah Thomas going off in the fourth would’ve been the perfect way to advance. He’s battled through the emotional pain of losing his sister and the physical pain of oral surgery to reach the sixth game, and he couldn’t get much to fall through the first three periods.
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Washington finally got on a roll offensively, and Beal was the epicenter. The same guy who got criticized for his max contract was playing like a nine-figure player, and his 13 fourth quarter points were invaluable. Regardless, it’s Wall’s team. For him to reach the next level in the eyes of most fans, delivering in the clutch needed to happen. And it did. Even Avery Bradley’s hounding couldn’t slow down Wall, and he got to the cup a myriad of times en route to his 10 points.
He initiated the offense with about 34 seconds left and put the ball in Beal’s hands. He came off a corner screen, Kelly Olynyk switched onto him, and Beal took Olynyk off the dribble and kissed a floater off the glass with 28.7 seconds left to tie the game at 89 all. The night’s most unlikely play came just seconds later. Al Horford, in prime Kevin Garnett fashion, banked home a deep two from the corner over John Wall to give Boston the lead again, 91-89.
Otto Porter got the task of inbounding on the ensuing play, and the Wizards are all kinds of lucky that he wasn’t whistled for a five-second violation. After the play had broken down, Wall ran up the sideline and got the pass. He took one dribble and splashed home the go-ahead three right in front of Bradley. The game wasn’t over, but the world stood still as Wall stared into the hometown crowd. He performed the eulogy at the funeral that the Celtics were planning to have and then jumped on the scorer’s table to show that what the consequences are of disrespecting his team on their home court. That’s the kind of player that Wall has become.
Now, we get to see a budding superstar on the NBA’s grandest stage — a Game 7. It’s not to decide the Finals. It won’t even send them to the Finals, but great players show up when the stakes are on the line. The game is back in Boston, and, if the trend continues, the Wizards’ magic stopped Friday night and their season is potentially another failure. If they change the script, we look at John Wall as an entirely different basketball player — a silencer, a killer.
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