For the fourth straight game in this Eastern Conference semifinal, Paul Pierce had a chance to shoot for the tie or the win in the closing seconds. For the fourth straight game, the Washington Wizards got the ball into the hands of the future Hall of Famer, the veteran they signed last summer for his swagger and shot-making, and asked him to keep their dream alive.
He made the shot. He just didn't make it fast enough.
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With 6.4 seconds left in Friday's do-or-die Game 6, the Wizards trailed the Atlanta Hawks by three points, 94-91, and needed another miracle to stave off elimination. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, Washington's top gun throughout this second-round series and a dead-eye shotmaker who'd scored 13 of his game-high 29 points in the fourth quarter, inbounded the ball to backcourt mate John Wall. DeMarre Carroll, the Hawks' top perimeter stopper, was all over the All-Star point guard from the moment he caught the ball, hounding him above the 3-point arc and forcing precious seconds off the clock.
Wall dribbled to the middle of the floor, then pitched the ball back to his left to the 37-year-old Pierce, just above the break on the left wing. "The Truth" dribbled hard to his left, taking a bump from Atlanta's Kyle Korver, then leapt, faded and released. The ball splashed through the net with the clock reading triple-zero, sending the Verizon Center crowd into hysterics at the prospect of a season-extending overtime ... and sending the referees to the replay review monitor to check to see if Pierce had gotten the shot off in time.
As the officials huddled at the scorer's table, ESPN's broadcast replays relayed the news to the audience watching at home: The ball still rested on Pierce's fingertips as the red light came on to signal the end of the fourth quarter.
No basket. No overtime. No Game 7. Hawks win, 94-91.
And just like that, with a wave of the official's arms, the Hawks had successfully fended off Washington's furious rally from a 15-point deficit and eliminated the Wizards, four games to two. Atlanta advances to the NBA's final four for the first time since 1970, when they were still in the Western Division. They'll take on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who eliminated the Chicago Bulls on Thursday, in the Eastern Conference finals.
After leading the Hawks with a playoff-career-high 25 points on 9-for-14 shooting, Carroll was asked after the game whether he thought that the final shot from Pierce — the scourge of Toronto, the bank-shot braveheart of Game 3, who came up just short in Game 4 and saw Al Horford steal his thunder in Game 5 — had once again come just in time.
"Nah, I knew it wasn't good when it left his hand," said Carroll, who added 10 rebounds, two steals, an assist and stellar perimeter defense, to ESPN's Chris Broussard. "I heard somebody screaming, 'SHOOT IT!' So I knew then it wasn't good.
"But man, he hit so many big shots," Carroll added, smiling in spite of himself. "It's crazy."
(Carroll would sing a slightly different tune in the winner's locker room after the game.)
It is crazy, and it's brutal, and it's another one for the record books. The Washington professional basketball franchise has now lost seven straight home playoff games when facing elimination — a mark that now features Game 6 losses to the East's top seed on the same date in consecutive years — and has not advanced to a seventh game in a postseason series since the 1979 Eastern Conference finals.
Three of the Wizards' four losses in this series — Game 4, in which Pierce missed a wide-open 3; Game 5, in which the Wizards (chiefly Nene, but perhaps also Pierce, depending on who you ask) failed to box out Horford on the pivotal final play; and Friday's Game 6 — came by a combined nine points. Each was decided in the final six seconds. That's it. That's the difference.
A Pierce wide open 3, a Nenê rebound, & a Pierce finger tip away from a million miles away, #Wizards.
— Kyle Weidie (@Truth_About_It) May 16, 2015
After finishing with four points on 1-for-7 shooting, repeatedly being attacked by Atlanta on the defensive end, whether with Carroll's quickness at the three or Paul Millsap's strength at the four, and coming this close to yet again doing what he was brought to D.C. to do, Pierce reportedly seemed as dejected as you'd expect:
Paul Pierce seemed crushed. Sounded like someone worried this was his last chance for a deep run.
— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) May 16, 2015
Pierce said he's unsure about next year but his body language was that of a man on the verge of retirement
— Rashad Mobley (@rashad20) May 16, 2015
Then again it is unfair of me or anyone to judge a man whose had the emotional rollercoaster of a night Pierce has
— Rashad Mobley (@rashad20) May 16, 2015
The Hawks opened up the game intent on pounding Washington on the glass and hustling back in transition to keep Wall, still a major threat despite playing with five nondisplaced fractures in his left hand and wrist, from working his magic in the open floor. Atlanta controlled the action on the interior early, with Horford and Millsap outdueling Nene and Marcin Gortat, the latter of whom would play just 12 minutes after apparently falling very ill on Thursday.
Things changed, somewhat surprisingly, when Randy Wittman went to his bench and reached for Kevin Seraphin, the offense-first French reserve big man who had made just two appearances and seen just over 10 minutes of floor time in the series. He paired with Drew Gooden to help clamp down on the Hawks, limiting them to just 3-for-16 shooting to finish out the first quarter, and sparked a 13-4 run capped by a Seraphin buzzer-beater that had the Wizards up 20-19 after 12 minutes.
The Wiz began to get the better of the boards midway through the second. Long-armed spark-plug swingman Otto Porter, a revelation this postseason, outworked Atlanta on the offensive glass to create multiple extra chances and a pair of additional buckets that helped keep the game tight even as Washington's offense — particularly the non-Wall, Beal and Seraphin parts — flagged.
The Hawks began to create some distance late, though. Millsap punished the older, slower and smaller Pierce, scoring 10 of his 20 points and grabbing five of his 13 rebounds in the second. Carroll snuck past the Wizards' interior defenders for a pair of late offensive rebounds and putbacks, and Millsap banked in a buzzer-beater that gave Atlanta a 45-39 halftime lead.
Atlanta came out of intermission firing, scoring four straight to push their lead to double digits, and continued to attack Pierce. This time, Carroll was the beneficiary, using his quickness to beat Pierce off the bounce and get himself to the line while also canning a pair of triples, scoring 13 points on 4-for-5 shooting in the stanza.
After a Gortat miss in the lane, the Hawks pushed the pace. The Wizards hustled back, but nobody matched up and stopped the ball, letting Jeff Teague get right to the rim to push the Atlanta lead to 14 with just under eight minutes left in the third:
As had so often been the case throughout the series, though, while the Hawks' starters built the lead, Budenholzer's reserve-heavy lineups — led by point guard Dennis Schröder, center Pero Antic and wing Kent Bazemore — frittered it away.
Washington found new life against Atlanta's backup crew, making a 7-0 run capped by some Wall-to-Porter fast-break fun to halve the deficit:
Sensing an opportunity to deliver a knockout blow, Budenholzer leaned on his starters early in the fourth. Teague, who'd finish with 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting, seven assists, five rebounds, a steal and a block, began to take over, cranking up the tempo off Washington misses and occasionally baffling the defense with his dribble penetration:
But after trailing by 10 with nine minutes remaining in the fourth, the Wizards began to make their stand. Fueled by 10 points from Beal and all-court activity from Wall, Washington ripped off a 17-6 run over the next five minutes and 10 seconds to take an 88-87 lead with 3:50 left on the clock. Pierce drew an offensive foul on Teague on the next play, Atlanta's fifth turnover of the final frame, to regain possession and keep the surging energy inside Verizon Center alive.
From there, though, things short-circuited.
Nene rebounded a missed layup by Porter, got fouled by Teague, and headed to the line for a pair of free throws. The Brazilian big man — who offered the Wiz nothing in Games 1 and 2, bounced back offensively in Games 3 and 4, but consistently struggled to protect the rim and to clean the glass against the quicker Hawks front line — missed them both. The Wiz got a stop on the ensuing Hawks possession, but couldn't capitalize, turning the ball over on a 24-second violation.
Pierce missed a 3, then watched as Millsap scuttled a good Wizards defensive sequence by popping a 16-footer over his outstretched arm to end a prolonged scoring drought and give Atlanta back the lead at 89-88. After Wall and Korver traded missed 3s, Wall got himself to the basket and, thanks to a Millsap foul, to the line. He split his pair, tying the game at 89 and giving the Wizards three missed free throws in the final 3:20 of an elimination game they lost by three, which is the kind of thing that can haunt you all summer.
All knotted up in the final minute, the Hawks did something they didn't manage to do all that often in this series. They began looking like the Hawks, the team that rode ball and player movement to the NBA's sixth-best offense, a franchise-record 60 wins and the No. 1 seed in the East.
With a conference finals berth on the line, the Hawks kept it simple. They ran their stuff, they made the defense worry, and they got a pair of too-easy layups for the only member of their starting five who didn't make the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
"I saw [the Wizards' defenders] helping, and I slashed to the goal," explained Carroll, the Hawks' leading scorer in this postseason at 17.1 points per game. "I knew they were going to pay all their attention to Jeff and Kyle and Al and Paul. I just did what I do best, and that's slash."
Those slashes proved to be mortal wounds for the Wizards, who found themselves trailing by four points in the final 30 seconds. Coming out of a timeout, Beal attacked the basket, looking for a layup or contact; all he found was Horford's long arms, which notched their second block of the game. Beal recovered the ball and got it to Wall, who tried his luck. Horford went straight up, absorbed the body contact, and prevented Wall from converting his layup chance, giving Atlanta possession with just under 19 seconds remaining.
An ill-timed bit of sloppiness, though, gave the Wizards hope. Korver — Atlanta's designated free-throw shooter in late-game situations, but also a player whose scoring touch and overall offensive game had been all but completely negated by the swarming defense of Beal and Porter — glitched again, trying to make a pass rather than just accept the foul, and turning the ball over to Beal.
The Wizards pushed in search of a basket that would get them within one score, but Wall and Porter each missed chances before little-used reserve Garrett Temple came up with an offensive rebound and got fouled. He drained his pair, getting Washington within two points with seven ticks left.
Atlanta inbounded the ball, this time to the rocksteady Horford, who stepped to the stripe having attempted all of six free throws in this series.
He missed the first ...
... but he made the second, pushing the lead to three, and giving Washington one last chance with 6.4 seconds remaining.
The Hawks and their fans will count themselves eternally grateful that it wasn't 6.5.
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