Heavy is the head that wears the superstar crown. Trying to put on one isn’t easy, either.
One night after MVP-candidate James Harden was a no-show at home in a Game 6 that ended Houston’s season, John Wall took his star turn on the national stage. It didn’t start well, as the Wizards’ point guard missed eight of his nine shots in the first half.
But that didn’t matter.
“If I go 1-for-30, that’s the way I have to go out,” he said after nailing the game’s biggest shot. His three-pointer with 3.5 seconds left gave Washington a thrilling 92-91 victory over the Celtics to force a Game 7 in Boston.
Wall refused to let the Wizards end another playoff series at home. The team’s heart, soul and emotional leader jumped atop the scorer’s table at the final buzzer and let the Verizon Center crowd know exactly where they were:
The House of Guards.
Wall gets credit for the game-winner, a 26-footer in Avery Bradley’s face to create the final score. But backcourt mate Bradley Beal gets the nod for making it possible. Beal had 13 of his game-high 33 points in the fourth quarter, this after doing most of the heavy lifting prior to intermission.
They form quite an impressive duo. Wall and Beal, the lightning quick and the silky smooth. We can chuckle now at the preseason story that they didn’t like each other on the court. Each would be hard-pressed to find a better complement to play alongside.
Wall took huge steps this season toward becoming the Eastern Conference’s best point guard, playing in his fourth consecutive All-Star Game and becoming the first player in NBA history to record at least 1,800 points, 800 assists, 150 steals and 50 blocks. He’s inarguably the face of the Wizards, a fact made clear in the NBA’s advertising.
Nothing that happened Friday night will change that. In addition to the testicular fortitude he demonstrated in taking and making decisive basket, Wall showed his toughness by bouncing back from the dreadful first half. He finished with 26 points and hit 8 of 16 shots after the break.
But there’d be no flight to Boston without Beal. His sweet stroke abandoned him all night until he drained a huge three-pointer. That made him 1-for-8 and pulled Washington within 87-85 with 47 seconds remaining. He proceeded to forge a tie on a driving bank shot with 28 seconds left.
If you subtract his wayward three-point shooting, Beal was an insane 14-for-18 from the field, constantly driving to the basket and finishing.
“He’s become a complete player this season right before our eyes,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s a two-way player and one of the best in the league. He’s not a shooter; he’s a ball player.”
As Wall and Beal go, so go the Wizards. They scored 19 of their team’s 25 points in the third quarter and 23 of Washington’s 26 fourth-quarter points. It’s a stretch to call the Wizards a two-man team, but the starting backcourt is fundamental to success. Especially on nights like Friday, when Otto Porter went scoreless and Marcin Gortat added just four points.
Thank goodness for Markieff Morris, the Wizards’ tough guy, who battled through a balky ankle for 16 points, 11 rebounds and tone-setting defense. He was the only other Wizard to score in the fourth quarter, hitting a huge three-pointer to put Washington ahead, 82-80. The crowd was on edge throughout the final 12 minutes, rising and falling through six ties and nine lead changes.
“I’m happy for our guys,” Brooks said. “I’m happy for our fans. That was an incredible atmosphere.”
Indeed. Long stretches of the evening had the feel of a Capitals’ game when the home team is about to be eliminated. Boston lead by one point at the half, by three after the third period and by five points with 1:34 left in the game. The Celtics, who wore black clothing to the arena – mimicking the Wizards’ “funeral” attire prior to a regular-season victory at Verizon – were close to burying the home team.
But the House of Guards combined to split the Wizards’ final 10 points while the defense limited Boston to four points. Al Horford’s unintentional bank shot with 7.7 seconds left would’ve been enough for the win, but Wall wasn’t done.
“The last play was supposed to be for Brad but he didn’t get the opportunity to get open and I didn’t want to get a five-second count,” Wall said. “I looked the defender in the eye and took a shot I work on and it went in.”
It’s a shot that will live in Wizards’ history, like Paul Pierce’s game winner in the 2015 playoffs. Wall took another step toward superstardom and rightfully so. The chants of MVP that ringed the arena presumably will grow louder next year (and next round if Washington advances).
Wall is trying to wear the crown, but he’s not the Wizards’ only one.
His “housemate” is vying to be fitted, too.
— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.