WASHINGTON -- A 21-point fourth-quarter lead had vanished, and all the air in a previously hot Verizon Center went out with the Washington Wizards’ cushion.
Washington was on the verge of an all-time playoff collapse. With John Wall and his fractured left hand watching from the sideline, the Wizards could not afford to fall behind 2-1 on their home floor and lose to the Atlanta Hawks in such gut-punching fashion.
Naturally, Wizards coach Randy Wittman turned to the oldest player in the building to save the drowning Wizards. He called on Paul Pierce to put on his cape and come to the rescue one more time.
Running a play that had been installed in practice the day before, Pierce got the ball and a switch to smaller defender Dennis Schroder above the free throw line.
Waving off the nearby Bradley Beal and telling him to get out of the way (to clear his defender from the area), Pierce held the ball down to the final two seconds before taking a dribble with his left hand and launching a step-back, 21-foot fadeaway over Schroder, with Kent Bazemore flying at him and Kyle Korver also coming his way.
The ball banked in off the glass, and the Wizards went up 2-1 in this series with a 103-101 victory that sent the arena into delirious joy.
“I called ‘game,’” Pierce told ESPN’s Chris Broussard after burying yet another playoff dagger in his 17-year career. “Game!”
With that, Pierce went from on the verge of being part of an epic playoff collapse to drilling arguably a top-five shot in Washington basketball franchise history.
Pierce and the Wizards did something not many gave them a shot to do after Wall was diagnosed Thursday with five non-displaced fractures in his left hand and wrist. The Wizards showed they can win this series without their All-Star point guard.
“We don’t have a choice," Beal said. "We can sit here and make excuses, or we can go out and prove people wrong.”
In each of the Wizards' lockers were T-shirts that read: "WHY NOT US?"
“We felt like we should have won Game 2 [without Wall], truthfully," Pierce said. "Even with John out, we still feel like we have enough in that room to win a game -- to win this series.”
Pierce said as much when news of Wall’s broken hand came out. But at the time, it felt like Pierce simply saying something he had to say.
Today, the chances of Washington beating top-seeded Atlanta without Wall feel greater than their just launching a fadeaway bank shot at the buzzer.
The truth of the matter is Washington dominated Atlanta up until the final seven-plus minutes of Game 3. And before they lost Game 2, the Wizards were within five with six minutes remaining on the road.
On Saturday, with Wall playing the role of animated cheerleader on the sideline, Atlanta witnessed something it was hoping not to see: Nene awakening in this series.
The Brazilian big man hit six of his first eight shots and had 13 points at the half. Nene had a total of two points in the first two games in Atlanta but finished with 17 points and seven rebounds in Game 3.
Marcin Gortat also hit six of seven shots and had 14 points and eight rebounds. If Washington can continue to get 31 points and 15 rebounds out of its two bigs, the Hawks are in trouble.
Porter continues to play like the small forward of the future for the Wizards, with 17 points and nine rebounds.
Even when Jeff Teague -- the Hawk Wall was trying to avoid before he crashed down on his wrist in Game 1 -- looked as if he would wipe out the entire Wizards’ backcourt with a flagrant foul on Beal on a breakaway in the second quarter, Washington stood its ground.
The Wizards even got contributions from the deepest parts of their roster, such as third-string point guard Will Bynum, who scored nine points in his first action of the series.
Not long after Bynum scored to push the Wizards up 91-70 with 9:54 left, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer sent in his third unit. Washington figured it would start celebrating Mother’s Day early.
But guys such as Shelvin Mack, Bazemore, Schroder and Mike Muscala brought the Hawks back with a stunning 27-7 run. Muscala tied the game at 101-101 with 14.8 seconds left with a wide open 3-pointer after Gortat blanked out and went into the paint to help.
Pierce tried to keep his young team positive and poised in the ensuing timeout.
“We were trying to keep our composure,” he said.
Pierce once helped the Boston Celtics author an improbable come-from-behind win in Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Nets. In that game, his team erased a 21-point deficit heading into the fourth to complete the then-largest fourth-quarter comeback in playoff history.
This time, Pierce avoided being on the other side of playoff history by doing what he will go down in basketball lore as one of the best at: clutch shots.
Schroder might have thought Pierce’s shot was lucky. But those who have seen Pierce deliver these kind of daggers over the years as if he were blindfolded know better.
“Usually, [I] like to save those types of shots for later rounds,” Pierce said.
“I guess Schroder is going to say that because he is a little young,” Pierce added with a chuckle about the 21-year-old German. “This is his second or third year, so he hasn’t been able to see it over the last 17 years, so of course he’s going to say [that]. He probably missed with me [while] playing [NBA] 2K.”
Unfortunately for the Hawks, the real version of The Truth doesn’t miss this kind of shot very often.
And now the Wall-less Wizards have a real shot at upsetting the best team in the East.