"Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat" rarely gets this literal.
Al Horford gave the Atlanta Hawks everything they needed on Wednesday, including a got-to-have-it-offensive-rebound that turned into a game-winning putback layup with 1.9 seconds left, to outpace more late-game heroism from Paul Pierce and push the Atlanta Hawks past the Washington Wizards, 82-81, in a wild and frenzied Game 5 at Philips Arena.
A nip-and-tuck contest that saw the soaring return of Wizards superstar John Wall, ramped-up defensive intensity, lots of missed shots and more drama than most rockfights can muster came down to the final minute of regulation.
With the score tied at 78, Horford missed a 21-footer that could've put the Hawks back in front, and watched as Wall — less than two weeks removed from suffering five nondisplaced fractures in his left wrist and hand — dove for the rebound, hitting the floor, corralling the miss and calling timeout to give the Wizards a chance to plunge another dagger into the heart of the Atlanta faithful.
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On the ensuing Wizards possession, Wall attacked off a high screen before elevating and pitching the ball back out to Pierce, who drove against Hawks defender DeMarre Carroll. As Pierce curled into the lane, though, he came face-to-face with the help defense of Kyle Korver, prompting him to stop short.
As Pierce pivoted and looked to reverse his field, Korver reached in and forced Pierce to cough up the ball, earning credit for his sixth (not a typo!) steal of the game. Horford, who had stepped up to meet Wall coming off the pick, snagged the loose ball and began running the fast break far more fluidly than a 6-foot-10, 245-pounder should be able to.
Horford and Carroll ran a picture-perfect two-on-one break, with Carroll eventually beating the backtracking Wall for a layup that put Atlanta up 80-78 with 14.9 seconds remaining, forcing the Wizards to take a timeout and regroup.
And man, did they come back with a vengeance.
Coming out of the timeout — the Wizards' last, mind you — Wittman called for a baseline "hammer" set. As Washington shooting guard Bradley Beal cut to receive the inbounds pass from Otto Porter, Pierce cut to the left corner, with center Marcin Gortat setting a back-screen that enveloped Pierce's defender, Paul Millsap. Beal curled toward the basket, got to the baseline and swung the ball straight to Pierce — who had been seething after not getting the benefit of the whistle after Korver's reach-in on the previous trip — now wide open in the short corner.
"The Truth" uncorked the jumper over the outstretched arms of Millsap. Unlike his final shot of Game 4, this one splashed through, redeeming his turnover, giving the Wizards an 81-80 lead with 8.3 seconds left, and leaving Wittman beside himself with ... I guess that's glee?
Pierce, who's no stranger to trash-talking the opponents he vanquishes and famously said he called "Game!" as he let loose the bank-shot that won Game 3, apparently updated his routine after the corner triple:
After Paul Pierce hit go-ahead 3-pointer, he looked at Hawks bench and said "Series."
— Chris Vivlamore (@CVivlamoreAJC) May 14, 2015
But as a seasoned veteran like Pierce should know, eight seconds can be a lifetime in the NBA. And the Hawks still had one more opportunity to answer.
Korver inbounded to reserve point guard Dennis Schröder, who drove straight down the middle of the paint against Wall, who had coldly rejected him four minutes earlier. Wall got the German sophomore's shot again, and it looked like the Wizards would hold on for a huge road win. But there came Horford, flying in from the back side of the play, to rip the loose ball away from Nene, send multiple Wizards crashing to the deck, rise up and lay the ball in with 1.9 seconds remaining.
With no timeouts left, the Wiz had to go, and quickly. Pierce inbounded to Wall, who took one dribble and heaved up a prayer from just beyond half-court. It went unanswered, leaving the Wiz just one defensive board shy of heading home with a 3-2 lead, and giving the Hawks two shots at closing Washington out.
It was a fitting end to a brilliant evening for Horford, who turned in an absolute star performance when his team needed him most — especially on a final play in which he was supposed to have relatively little involvement.
"Well, the play was for Dennis to go score," Horford told TNT's David Aldridge. "I was just supposed to set a screen for Kyle. I seen that it got a little crowded in there. Paul was supposed to get the rebound if we missed, but it's the end of the game, we're making plays, we're trying to win. I just went ahead and got it and put it back in."
The All-Star center finished with 23 points, nine coming in the final quarter, on 10-for-18 shooting. He added 11 rebounds, six of which came on the offensive glass, five blocks and two assists in 37 minutes of play. He's the first player in Hawks history to score 20-plus points, grab 10 or more rebounds and block at least five shots in a playoff game, and his heroics — plus strong late-game work from Schröder (four points, three assists, one steal, one turnover in the fourth) and stout team defense, holding Washington to 34 points on 35.1 percent shooting in the second half — helped deliver a win that he himself could scarcely describe in the moments following the final buzzer.
Asked by Aldridge how the Hawks pulled out a win on a night where they shot just 5-for-22 from 3-point land and turned the ball over 25 times, Horford could only laugh.
"I don't know, man," he said. "I really don't. We didn't play well at all. We struggled. Credit to them. We had a lot of careless turnovers. But we found a way, man. We found a way. We got it done."
They did so despite Wall's return from a three-game absence after sustaining five fractures in his left hand and wrist in a Game 1 fall.
The Hawks overplayed Wall's right hand early, daring him to go left, and the All-Star point guard initially seemed to be taking care not to overexpose the busted wing ... until he hit the gas in transition, froze Hawks counterpart Jeff Teague with a lefty inside-out dribble, slithered into the lane and finished a lefty layup through Korver's contact, even bracing himself for the fall with his healthy right hand as he went down:
Wall would finish with 15 points on 7-for-16 shooting, with seven assists, four rebounds, four steals, two blocks and six turnovers in 37 1/2 minutes of work. He wasn't perfect in his return, but he was relentless, making an immediate and unquestionable impact during his floor time.
Despite committed Hawks interior defense helmed by Horford, who had three big blocks in the game's first seven minutes, with Wall back in the fold, the Wizards pushed the ball off every Atlanta miss and turnover. They bet that, more often than not, they'd be able to beat the retreating Hawks in a footrace and find quality early-offense opportunities with Wall back on the ball.
They were right in the early going, scoring five fast-break points in the first period and turning seven Hawks turnovers into eight points. Those easy buckets helped keep them within hailing distance of the Hawks despite making just eight of their 22 shots in the first quarter. So did Atlanta's own poor shotmaking, as Mike Budenholzer's club shot just 9-for-22 to take a four-point lead into the second stanza.
While Atlanta's transition defense leaked, their half-court D tended to be very sharp and very tight. There seemed to be some additional stability, as the Hawks moved away from loading up on the strong side of the floor, preferring to stick close to shooters away from the ball.
This limited Washington's opportunities to beat the Hawks' coverage with side-to-side ball swings or skip passes ahead of weak-side rotations, which limited the number of 3-pointers the Wizards managed. After averaging nearly more than 25 long-range tries and nearly 11 makes per game through the first four contests in this series, Washington went just 4-for-17 from deep on Wednesday.
As impressive as the Hawks' defensive activity was, though — especially from Korver, who continued to struggle to find airspace to shoot while being blanketed by Beal and Porter, but persisted in contributing through deflections, strips, timely help and blocks — their offense was just as rough.
With the exceptions of Millsap attacking Pierce and a pleasantly surprising eight-points-on-five-shots burst from reserve Mike Muscala, Atlanta seemed incapable of generating anything in the second quarter. Point guards Teague and Schröder, whose aggression was so pivotal in Atlanta's Game 4 win, seemed tentative, combining for two points on 1-for-6 shooting with five assists and three turnovers in the second quarter.
Their counterpart, on the other hand, got to cooking:
The small-ball five-man lineup that tilted three of the Wizards' four wins against the Toronto Raptors — Wall, Beal, Porter, Pierce and Gortat — outscored the Hawks 19-6 over the final 5:06 of the second quarter, giving the Wiz a 47-41 halftime lead. Atlanta compounded its troubles on the other side of intermission, opening up the third quarter with five turnovers in their first five possessions. Washington capitalized, pushing its lead to 10 just two minutes into the half.
Just when we thought we had the game pegged, though, the Hawks made a push, cutting the deficit to five by creating a turnover and a transition opportunity of their own, with Horford following a missed Hawks layup — foreshadowing! — by yamming all over the back, neck and psyche of Gortat:
Behind Teague and Schröder's paint penetration and aggressive defense that forced nine third-quarter Wizards cough-ups, the energized Hawks re-took the lead with a 10-0 run, bringing a 63-62 advantage into the fourth quarter. And then Atlanta's offense went back to sleep.
The Hawks' first points of the fourth quarter came on a Millsap free throw at 6:34. That five-minute, 26-second drought allowed the Wizards to pull back ahead, with a Beal jumper capping an 11-1 run that put Washington up 73-64 just before the midpoint of the final quarter. Atlanta desperately needed a burst of inspiration, something to go right that could shift the game's emotional balance.
The Hawks got it in the form of Korver deciding that a 27-footer in delayed transition might be the cleanest look he'd get, throwing caution to the wind and letting it fly:
It was the Hawks' first field goal since a Horford tip-in — foreshadowing! — with 27 seconds left in the third quarter, and it put a charge into the Highlight Factory.
After a missed pull-up by Wall, Schröder pushed the ball and found Horford, he of 23 made 3-pointers in an eight-year career, open in the right corner. Splash. All of a sudden, the Hawks were within one.
With Carroll picking up the defensive assignment on Wall full-court, the Hawks began short-circuiting the Wizards offense, keeping them from generating early offense and prompting them to take the sort of long contested jumpers that had been their bête noire throughout the regular season. And with Schröder simultaneously stepping up in his cross-match assignment on Beal and dealing on the offensive end, hitting a foul-line pull-up to put the Hawks up by three with 2:55 remaining, Teague — who'd been on the bench since the 5:32 mark — passed on the chance to check back in.
“We got a steal and Dennis hit a pull-up jumper and I just said [to Budenholzer], ‘Let it go, man,'" said Teague, who finished with 14 points on 6-for-13 shooting with five assists and seven turnovers, according to Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "'Let him ride it out.'”
The backup would reward the starter's confidence with a floater that pushed the lead to five. Pierce sniped back, though, knocking in a long-distance shot that cut the deficit to two with 2:04 remaining, setting the stage for a finish that was far more thrilling than the teams' wonky shooting — 67-for-171 (39.2 percent) from the floor, 9-for-39 (23.1 percent) from 3-point land — and all those turnovers would've indicated.
For the Wiz, though, the heart-racing late action produced a heartbreaking finish, thanks to some timely board-crashing from the Hawks' best player. Atlanta now heads to D.C. for Friday's Game 6 looking to finish the job and advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since the franchise was located in St. Louis.
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