The Washington Wizards came close to winning Game 2 without John Wall.
They came even closer to losing Game 3 without him.
All things considered, they prefer their All-Star point guard in the lineup rather than in a suit. But after building a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead Saturday night against Atlanta – and holding on to avert a disastrous collapse – the Wizards feel pretty good about their chances when Wall is out.
Even if it took a tie-breaking, unintentional bank shot at the buzzer to seal Game 3, 103-101.
“I wish it didn’t come down to that,” Paul Pierce said. “I like to save those shots for later rounds.”
Advancing seemed doubtful, at best, 24 hours earlier. Virtually everyone with a microphone or keyboard wrote off the Wizards upon learning Wall would miss Game 3 and possibly the rest of the postseason.
He’s the engine that makes Washington go, responsible for about 40 percent of the offense when you factor in scoring and assists. But with five non-displaced factures in his left hand, he’s powerless to help his teammates.
They barely missed him Saturday. To compensate for his absence – and perhaps show solidarity based on the number of breaks he suffered – the Wizards had five players with double figures in scoring, five players with at least five rebounds and five players with at least three assists.
Washington thoroughly outplayed the Eastern Conference’s top seed for 38 minutes, enjoying a 91-70 lead. Coach Randy Wittman coaxed nine points out of reserve Will Bynum in 13 minutes. Wall watched and cheered. The sellout crowd roared and relaxed.
The Wizards did no wrong through three quarters, shooting 51 percent from the floor, including 42 percent on 3-pointers. Everyone was involved, especially Nene, who hadn’t scored a field in the first two games.
Instead of becoming stagnant and lethargic without its floor general, Washington was fluid and energized. The Wizards’ offense became a keyless-ignition system. No single player could make up for Wall and no single player tried.
“It’s going to be a combination of a lot of guys, the way we move the ball and move our bodies,” Pierce said. “We know John can create a lot of offense for us. What it will take to replace that is a lot of ball movement, a lot of cutting, moving the ball from side to side, keeping them off-balance.
“It makes us a little more unpredictable, especially when you have five or six guys in double figures. We don’t have one guy dominating the offense and we have a lot of depth.”
The Wizards were emboldened by their showing in Game 2, when Wall was a late scratch. Bynum didn’t get off the bench but Washington was within three points with eight minutes remaining before Atlanta pulled away.
That was just one game when the team didn’t know the extent of Wall’s injury. Saturday was a different story. Game 3 quite possibly represented the way Washington will look from this point forward. Nothing is official, but the team must play with the mindset that Wall isn’t coming to the rescue anytime soon.
“Personally, I was getting tired of getting text messages from people asking what were going to do,” forward Drew Gooden said.
There was no question what they would do (just how they would do). They would play on. Just like the Clippers without Chris Paul, the Grizzles without Mike Conley, the Cavs without Kevin Love and now the Bulls perhaps without Pau Gasoil.
The remaining teammates would focus and concentrate that much harder, which is necessary when a key cog is unavailable.
“We did a lot of good things,” Wittman said. “Nene and (Marcin Gortat) really, really stepped up to the challenge. That’s huge for us, when we can play off of those guys when they are in there together.”
Nene, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter shared team-high honors with 17 points apiece. Beal had a postseason career-high with eight assists and Porter had a team-high nine rebounds. Yes, the Wizards let Atlanta turn a 21-point deficit into a 101-101 tie over the game’s final 10 minutes.
But that was more a function of thinking the game was over, not playing a lousy game. Pierce said he wished it didn’t come down to his buzzer-beater. Gooden had a different slant.
“It would’ve been sweet being up by 20 points and letting time out,” he said. “But for Paul to hit that shot was even sweeter.”
The sweetest thing about Saturday night was the way Washington performed without its leader.
In an Eastern Conference that looks wide open, it will take more than a busted hand to make the Wizards non-believers.