WASHINGTON — No matter how the final 4:58 of regulation time transpired in last night’s pivotal Game 4 for the Washington Wizards, that stretch of play more than likely would become how their 2017-18 season, one checkered with lofty expectations yet maddening inconsistency, would be defined.
Those 298 seconds ended up going as well as any Wizards player and supporter could have imagined – even with their most dominant player in the game watching every second of it unfold from the bench.
John Wall scored 10 of the Wizards’ final 14 points of the game, picking up the slack after backcourt mate Bradley Beal fouled out with five minutes remaining in the game, as Washington defeated the Toronto Raptors 106-98 to even the Eastern Conference first-round series at two games apiece. Wall finished the game with 27 points and 14 assists, while Otto Porter Jr. scored 11 of his 12 points after halftime.
Trying to avoid a 3-1 hole in the series, the Wizards fought back from an 11-point halftime deficit to take the lead late in the third quarter but saw Beal, who scored 31 points and netted eight of those in the first seven minutes of the fourth, pick up his sixth foul on a questionable call after going for a rebound in the corner with Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and the game tied at 92. Given Washington’s disappointing regular season, stemming from a myriad of losses to inferior opponents during the season and Wall’s prolonged absence in the middle of the year due to knee surgery, having the team’s leading scorer disqualified while the top-seeded Raptors went about closing out the game would have been a fitting way to end all realistic hopes at achieving some sort of redemption during the postseason.
Instead, the perfect time to once again question the Wizards’ fortitude turned out to be the best Washington has performed all season under adversity and, because of that, this series has become a best-of-three with the spoils shared after four games and the Wizards going back up to Canada with momentum.
“You have to have resolve to win in this league,” said Wizards head coach Scott Brooks. “We’ve had some tough moments this year with John [Wall] missing half the season, but we found it and it put us in a position to make the playoffs through resolve. You win playoff games and you win playoff series with having that. We have that, and we have to continue to have that because we have to win two more games and one of them has to be on the road.”
Wall left no question about his resolve after seeing Beal foul out, scoring a fast break layup to tie the game at 94 with 3:50 remaining then, after a Markieff Morris steal, Wall threw a perfect alley-oop pass that Morris laid in off the glass to give the Wizards a 96-94 lead, a lead that they would not relinquish for the rest of the contest. For good measure, Wall nailed a fadeaway baseline jumper with 51.8 seconds remaining for a 102-96 lead, sending the Capital One Arena crowd into a rally-towel-waving frenzy.
“Just go in attack mode,” Wall said about his mentality in the final five minutes. “Even when Brad’s [Beal] in the game, he’s telling me ‘be aggressive.’ When Brad went out, I knew I had to do whatever it took: guarding DeMar DeRozan, making plays, scoring the ball and passing the ball. I just wanted to do whatever, so that we could advance to Game 5, tied 2-2.”
While Wall was in attack mode during the last portion of the game, the Raptors’ offense went cold, missing seven of their final eight field goal attempts while also turning over the ball twice, two of their 18 turnovers in the game that lead to 19 Washington points. DeMar DeRozan ended the game with 35 points, his second 30-plus scoring effort in this series, but missed six of his eight shots from the field in the fourth.
“I thought our turnover situation, we were playing frenetic down the stretch [and] at some point, we got to make sure we keep our composure and execute,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “We missed some shots that we normally make. I thought DeMar was terrific, taking over, getting to the rim, going where he wants to go. But, again, we turned down some good looks that I thought we normally step into. You’ve got to give Washington credit. They played tremendously.”
Toronto was the aggressor for the majority of the first half, with DeRozan’s slashes to the basket helping Toronto earn 16 free throw attempts in the first quarter compared to Washington’s four. DeRozan alone went 9-of-12 from the charity stripe in the first quarter as the Raptors led by eight at the end of the first (30-22).
The lead ballooned to 51-40 by the intermission, but Washington turned the game on its head with a 40-point third quarter that saw the teams tied at 80 afterward. Porter Jr., who only had one point in the first half, scored 10 points in the third as he made all four of his shots from the field, including two three-pointers. He tag-teamed with Beal, who scored 12 in the third, to lift Washington into the lead for the first time in the game at the 5:27 mark, when Beal nailed a three for a 66-65 lead.
By the end of the third, Beal had 23 points but also four fouls. With 7:59 remaining, Beal picked up his fifth foul on a charging call and, on the ensuing possession, Toronto’s Delon Wright scored on a layup to extend the Raptors’ lead to 90-82. Toronto’s growing lead played a big role in Brooks leaving Beal in the game at that point, and it seemed like sound strategy when Beal scored six during a Wizards’ 8-0 run that tied the game at 90 with 6:05 left.
But then, with the game tied at 92, Beal got tangled with DeRozan, who chased down a rebound off of his own miss, and both fell to the court with Beal being called for a blocking foul, disqualifying him for the rest of the game. An incensed Beal stormed up and down the sideline in protest before throwing his mouthpiece down to the court once he finally got to the bench.
“When they initially called me for my sixth I was beyond emotional, beyond mad, frustrated,” said Beal, who averaged 29.5 points in the two home games against Toronto after only averaging 14 per game in the first two games in Toronto. “Pretty much any synonym you could add on that list. I honestly thought they were going to kick me out of the game I was so mad, but I was happy they didn’t do that. I just gathered my emotions, gathered my thoughts and told my team we were going to win, regardless.”
Given Washington’s season up to this point, pulling out the win in that situation would have been the result less expected to happen, but Wall and the Wizards changed that narrative for at least one night. All of the good feelings from tonight could still be washed away if they cannot win one game in Toronto next week.
“We’ve got a challenge,” said Brooks about going back to Toronto. “We definitely have a challenge on our hands. They play well at home.”
But tonight might go a long way in defining this Wizards team as a team that finally has something that had been missing all season long: grace under fire.