The 2015 NBA postseason has had many memorable moments, including a 20-point fourth-quarter comeback, big shots from a clutch veteran, and a banked-in game-winning buzzer-beater. Saturday's Game 3 between the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks saw all three occur in the span of two game-ending possessions.
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After leading by as many as 21 points in the fourth quarter and 20 with just 7:30 remaining, the Wizards saw the Hawks reserves mount a furious comeback and force a tie with just 14 seconds remaining. However, veteran scorer Paul Pierce, a player with many big buckets in his 17-season career, banked in a jumper over several Hawks at the buzzer to give the Washington a 103-101 win and 2-1 advantage in the series. Take a look:
ESPN's Chris Broussard asked Pierce if he called bank in his postgame interview. His answer:
While Pierce has hit many big shots in his postseason career, this winner is just his second playoff buzzer-beater after a winner for the Boston Celtics against the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the 2010 first round.
Saturday's winner was especially dramatic due to the circumstances. After playing very well in the first three quarters without star point guard John Wall, missing his second straight game due to several fractures in his left wrist, the Wizards sputtered to allow a lineup of Hawks reserves to come back from 21 down in the fourth quarter. Atlanta completed the comeback with 14 seconds remaining in regulation, when second-year forward Mike Muscala knocked down a three-pointer to tie it at 101-101:
Muscala had played all of 10 minutes in these playoffs (and 15 for his postseason career) prior to Saturday. Nevertheless, he and his fellow Hawks bench players (plus starter Kyle Korver a little later) overwhelmed the Wizards in the fourth quarter to turn an apparent blowout into a thriller. Backup point guard Dennis Schröder played especially well with 16 of the Atlanta's 35 points in the quarter, but players such as Muscala, Shelvin Mack, and Kent Bazemore also came up big at both ends. If not for Pierce's winner, their lively play and the Wizards' late struggles would have been the stories of the game.
Instead, we are more likely to focus on the circumstances that required a surreal comeback from a relatively unheralded group of reserves. Despite the absence of Wall, the Wizards excelled early with terrific team-wide ball movement to create open looks from beyond the arc and in the paint. It helped that big man Nene bounced back from two awful opening games (two points total on two free throws) to score eight points in the first quarter with his first four field goals of the series. With improved options inside and reasonably solid shot creation from dual backcourt creators Bradley Beal and Ramon Sessions, the Wizards got out to a 28-18 lead after one.
The Hawks improved in the second quarter, but the first half saw them carry out too many of the struggles that have led to a disappointing postseason for the East's No. 1 seed. A team renowned for its ball movement and balanced offense had difficulties getting open looks and didn't make many of them when they did. Kyle Korver, increasingly a bellwether for the overall health of the offense, hit both of his three-point attempts in the first quarter but didn't get another perimeter attempt until the final minute of regulation. In addition, point guard Jeff Teague scuffled to 2-of-9 shooting in the first half, failing to take advantage of the absence of defensive ace Wall. Atlanta has looked like a poor imitation of the team that ran through the conference this winter, and there does not appear to be an easy fix beyond simply playing better. They are just not playing at the level most analysts expected them to reach in the postseason.
Meanwhile, the Wizards played well above expectations to lead by as many as 18 before entering halftime with a 56-43 lead. The Hawks briefly cut the deficit to nine points just shy of the 7:00 mark of the third, but that run proved short-lived. Beal immediately followed with a three-pointer to push the margin back to 12, and the hosts finished the quarter up 85-66 in command. There were many reasons for that lead, from the startlingly improved play of wing Otto Porter (suddenly a quality two-way player) and strong contributions from virtually every rotation player. It was enough for Randy Wittmann to show extreme confidence in his between-quarters interview with Broussard:
What's your biggest concern entering the fourth quarter? Randy Wittman: "Nothing."— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) May 9, 2015
In the fourth quarter, though, Washington finally felt the loss of Wall, one of the top facilitators in the league and a terrific defender at the point of attack. As Schröder continued to get to the hoop and the Wizards offense stagnated, it was clear that head coach Randy Wittmann needed both a stabilizing influence and a player capable of pulling a fantastic play out of nowhere. Wall has been that guy all season, and the Wizards just aren't as effective a team without him.
Pierce's heroics were enough to avoid late disaster, and the Wizards played well enough for the first 36 minutes that it's not crazy to think they can pick up two more wins in this series to make an unlikely trip to the conference finals. However, it would help them a whole lot to see Wall return, even in a diminished form. The Hawks are very clearly vulnerable, and the re-addition of an All-Star could turn their narrow 2-1 advantage into new status as clear favorites to knock off the top seed. Until that happens, though, the Hawks will continue to have an opportunity to win this series. They just have to play like a team that understands the urgency of the movement, just like they did in the fourth quarter.
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