The Washington Wizards could’ve easily packed it in, retired on the laurels of a resurgent season and surprising playoff showing and spent their summer focused on the future, bright and brilliant as it may well be.
Blame it on pride, perhaps, but John Wall and Marcin Gortat, who combined for 58 points in Washington’s 102-79 Game 5 win over the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night, were far from ready to give up the fight.
With Indy’s series lead cut to 3-2, the focus now shifts back to D.C., where Wall and Co. will look to pull off what on paper seems improbable, until you remember these Pacers—bipolar basketball if ever such a thing existed—just refuse to play a stable part.
More than anything else, Tuesday’s tilt was an exercise in enthusiasm. Washington brought it, buoyed by Gortat’s low-post presence and Wall’s hot right hand—outwardly, the oddest of basketball pairings, until you appreciate the yin and the yang of the scowls and smiles.
Indiana? Its exertion can be summed up in a singular stat: a 62-23 rebounding margin that, somehow, looked far worse live than it ever could in computer columns.
Unlike the Pacers, the Wizards, it turns out, are pretty simple to figure. For all of its flaws—and there are more than a few—Washington has managed to maintain the air of a team that understands exactly what it is: soaring a bit too close to the sun, sure, but powered always by effort.
Effort. A word Wall writes with every cavalier lane-hawk and in every furrowed brow.
Entering Game 5, he'd become something of a scapegoat for the Wizards’ woes, having failed to crest 50 percent from the field in each of his previous six outings dating back to Washington’s Game 3 loss to the Chicago Bulls in Round 1.
Yet here he was, the self-described “head of the snake,” slithering through pick-and rolls, seizing on his spots and sticking jumper after jumper. When all was said and done, only three of Wall’s attempts came at or near the rim—a distinct departure from the slice-and-dice approach of games past.
Gortat, meanwhile, authored an even grander redemption: 31 points and 16 rebounds—this after six points combined in Washington’s two previous outings (both losses).
“The Polish Hammer.” For such a scary sounding nickname, Gortat’s on-court demeanor has been more happy warrior than theatrical thug.
But hammer he did—hammered home 13-of-15 field-goal attempts, hammered Roy Hibbert in and around the left block like some kind of savvy basketball savant.
That’s not to say Washington’s dynamic duo was left to deal the blows themselves. Bradley Beal’s 18 points (on 7-of-17 shooting) and Trevor Ariza (10 points and 10 rebounds) both brought to bear what the Wizards bench—which finished with a paltry 12 points—consistently couldn’t.
Now, Washington finds itself in an infinitely more promising position: momentum in its corner, a crowd of hometown faithful waiting and—most crucial of all—with less than nothing to lose.
Lose, after all, is what the Wizards were supposed to do Tuesday night. And if they search and sleuth hard enough, they're liable to come across these facts, couched deep within a recent column by The Washington Post’s Michael Lee—titled, perfectly enough, “Bradley Beal says Wizards ‘have a chance to make something’ in Game 5.”:
Only eight of the 194 teams to fall behind 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have ever come back to win. The Phoenix Suns are the last team to rally from such a deficit to win a series, claiming three straight victories over the Los Angeles Lakers in 2006.
The Indiana Pacers have never lost a series in the six times that they have taken such a lead. Washington has only come back one time when trailing in that situation, in 1979. The Wizards trailed the Cleveland Cavaliers 3-1 in the franchise’s previous playoff appearance, won Game 5 on the road and eventually lost in six games.
The Wizards already know all this. Short of knowing, they most certainly feel it, the weighty sense that history always finds a way of laying waste to a rebel’s stirrings.
To which the Wizards might well respond: What weight?
And they’d be right.
Wall and Gortat may wield very different ways of wearing that weightlessness, the former a face full of fire, the latter by way of a jolly giant’s smile. Both, though, are more than aware of what waits on the other side of a Thursday win: a chance for all of us to finally focus the lens on something sweeter than the bitter downfall of a once mighty team.