WASHINGTON — The 20,356 men and women inside Verizon Center had seen this before. A D.C. sports team was imploding before their eyes, led by another young star that suddenly couldn't do anything right. Another big lead gone, another likable, surprising team that captivated their attention about to crush their hopes.
The only question was how it was going to happen. Savvy members of that 20,356 pieced together previous episodes while still preparing to see something they'd never seen before. Being a D.C. sports fan is like watching a sitcom where everything goes back to being the same in the end, except the end is more Arrested Development than Everybody Loves Raymond.
By this point, the Washington Wizards' 17-point halftime lead on the Indiana Pacers in Game 4 was gone. The play of scrappy cult heroes like 38-year-old YMCA rec-league doppelgänger Andre Miller, aging gunner Al Harrington and recent JCC Bethesda star Drew Gooden was long forgotten. Paul George, on his way to a 39-point effort, was going to the line to give the Pacers a one-point lead. Two minutes and 24 seconds remained, plenty of time in theory for the home team to recover. In theory, but not in reality.
And so, they sat. Silently. Faint music played, but nobody reacted. Red, white and blue towels given out to waive and pump up the home team sat on laps. Never has the reductive "You could hear a pin drop in this building" cliche been more accurate.
Arena staffers eventually compelled them to rise with very loud music and very forceful words, and so they did, but their hearts weren't in it. They participated because that's what they were supposed to do, not because they wanted to do it. The clapping was muted, the towel waiving aimless. The loudest noises were not for cheers, but for groans when the young star that suddenly couldn't do anything right refused to take a wide-open three in the final minute that would have tied the game.
And when the final pass went astray and into the backcourt, they stormed out, one after the other. They had been kicked in the teeth. Again.
(Credit: Brad Mills - USA TODAY Sports)
Avid 2013-14 Washington Wizards watchers feared this scenario would come to fruition. Not that there were as many as the organization likely hoped. The team floated in the East's middle tier all season, never ripping off a long winning streak, but never suffering an extended swoon either. Just as they appeared ready to turn the corner, they'd lay an egg. Similar inconsistency plagued them within games; Sunday was the 12th time this season they fell while surrendering a double-digit lead.
These factors helped contribute to dampened enthusiasm in the district for the team's first playoff berth in six years. This was a good team on paper with an exciting young backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal, augmented by experienced veterans in Nene, Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza and others. They certainly did well to meet their preseason goal of returning to the postseason. Yet they didn't overachieve either; if anything, they underachieved despite the circumstances. There's a reason Wall told Sports Illustrated the team should have won 55 games, or 11 more than they actually won.
And then the playoffs happened, and the Wizards, out of nowhere, finally came together. They snarled right back at the physical Bulls, dominating that series in five stunning games. They were poised. They made the adjustments. They finally captured the city's attention. They overcame obstacles like Nene's Game 4 suspension and furious charges by Chicago in Games 2 and 5. Then, they came into BankersLife Fieldhouse and stole Game 1 from the reeling Pacers. Those Eastern Conference Finals dreams suddenly didn't seem so crazy. A local columnist even called for critics of much-maligned general manager Ernie Grunfeld to apologize.
But slowly, the Wizards reverted back to who they are, both this season and in their 35-year down spell. They fought hard in defeat in Game 2, giving the fanbase false hope that home games would be different. They laid their customary egg in Game 3, causing those same fans to abandon ship. In Game 4, they toyed with their supporters, erasing a stretch of unlikely brilliance with mind-boggling turnovers, stagnant offense and unresponsive defense.
The Wizards technically still have a chance in this series, but nobody believes they can rally to win three straight to beat the Pacers, not after what they just witnessed.
When the going is good with the Wizards, anyone is capable of stepping up. The young backcourt gets the most face time, but almost every rotation player on the roster, from Wall down to midseason pickups Miller and Gooden, has saved the team at some point.
In Game 4, it was the old geezers' turn. Down one to enter the second quarter, coach Randy Wittman inserted Miller, Gooden and Harrington into the game alongside Beal and Martell Webster. That five-man group, affectionately dubbed the "AARP Unit" thanks to a notable Wittman quote, was successful in spots for the last two months of the season, but hadn't yet seen postseason action.
They quickly made you wonder why not. On Indiana's second possession, Harrington, who thought his career was over after a staph infection on a routine knee procedure two years ago, cut into the passing lane and went coast to coast for a layup. A beautiful seven-minute display of ball movement, spacing, defensive effort and guile followed, and that one-point deficit was suddenly a 14-point lead. The starters re-entered and kept momentum going, with Wall punctuating the half with a stunning behind-the-back move in transition, his only real highlight of the game.
"[The bench] kind of saved the day," Wittman said.
But then the third quarter, the Wizards' bugaboo all season, reared its ugly head. A 14-point lead with four minutes left was quickly zapped by terrible offensive execution, missed layups and blown defensive assignments. Roy Hibbert began to assert himself, dominating Nene and Gortat down low. Wall was powerless to stop it, his game completely in shambles thanks to Indiana's stifling D.
"Aww man," Ariza said about the third-quarter woes before a long pause. "We gotta figure out how to fix that. It's something that's been biting us all year, and we're at the point where that has to stop."
The AARP Unit entered and again pushed the lead back to nine, but even their stranglehold began to slip. George, hounded by Ariza all series, finally broke free. His four-point play with five minutes left gave him 33 points and sliced Washington's lead to a single possession. The pressure was palpable, and the Wizards felt it. Gooden let a perfect Wall delivery bounce off his fingers. A Nene scoop layup didn't even reach the backboard. When George hit those two free throws with 2:24 remaining, the lead was officially gone.
Eventually, those nervous fans were proven right. A sloppy Wall found a lane off a mad scramble, but couldn't finish over Hibbert's outstretched arms. After a Hibbert hook shot pushed Indiana's lead to three, Nene ducked in on a well-timed cut and was stoned by the bottom of the rim on a point-blank layup. After the ensuing timeout, Beal slung a deep, semi-open three off the side of the rim out of bounds. One final chance with six seconds left ended in appropriate fashion when Ariza threw the inbounds pass off target for the game-sealing turnover. Pacers 95, Wizards 92. Pacers 3, Wizards 1.
Players slowly arrived from the shower or training room after the game. First, Webster, who begged off a television interview on his way out the door. Then, Ariza, who slouched in his chair making small talk with a Wizards staffer while rubbing cream on his aching legs. Next, Gooden, who turned his back to the pack and shouted "FUCK. SHIT" to nobody in particular. Soon after, Nene faced the music cryptically, suggesting he "couldn't tell the truth" about what happened and then cut his media session off abruptly.
Wall was last, as he often is. On this night, he lingered in the training room, with TNT showing on the big screen. He was there after Game 3 as well, but that was because trainers were tending to a nasty cut below his eye. There was no injury on this night, just emotional turmoil from a series gone horribly wrong and a coming-out-party rapidly turning into a national media bash session. He tried his best to hide his frustration, but it wasn't convincing.
"Never lost confidence," he said abruptly. "If I did, I wouldn't be shooting it still. I've still got confidence. It's just not going in the basket."
Yet it was a shot Wall didn't take that will linger for the next two days. He found himself wide open with under a minute left, and the crowd begged him to take the same wing three he took and missed at the end of Game 2. Instead, he passed it up.
"I was screaming at him to shoot it," Harrington said. "But he saw something else — Bradley [Beal] — open on the other side."
Wall, meanwhile, claimed he made the "right decision" because the play was for Beal and he's a better shooter. It sounded great, but Wall always says the right things. Putting those words into action has proven to be more difficult, especially against a Pacers defense that has regained its midseason form.
"It's tough. We're trying to talk to him, and he's telling us all the right things," Harrington said. 'He's ready. He's fine, he's confident.' Stuff like that."
Wall begins the first season of a five-year maximum contract in 2014-15. He was brilliant at times this year in a breakout campaign that earned him all the individual accolades he worked so hard to get. He made the All-Star team. He improved his jump shot and learned how to change speeds instead of always playing fast. He made the playoffs for the first time in his career.
But the Pacers have proven to be his biggest nightmare. They drop three players back to take away his ability to push in transition and have swarmed him whenever he approaches the paint. All the Wizards had no problems challenging Hibbert at the rim. All of them ... except Wall. He's left to hope that this is a teachable moment that makes him better in the long haul, even if his coach wasn't in the mood to address it.
"All that is is an excuse," Wittman said. "I don't want to hear it. These guys are NBA players, and we all are."
(Credit: Rob Carr - Getty Images)
Wall will bounce back and Beal is becoming a star, but the rest of the roster faces serious questions. Nene turns 32 next season, has two more years on a gigantic contract and is always in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries. Gortat, Ariza, Trevor Booker and Gooden are free agents, and Miller may join them if the Wizards elect to buy him out before June 30. Rookie Otto Porter Jr., the team's small forward of the future, showed very little, thanks to an early-season injury and the presence of Ariza and Webster. Wittman is in the last year of his contract, as is Grunfeld.
Washington possesses cap space, but must choose between chasing a marquee free agent and bringing back the core of their best team in half a decade. The chances of wooing the former are slim, but doing the latter means committing serious coin to players likely to decline. They also must keep their options open in 2016, when local product Kevin Durant is a free agent.
These are questions that Wizards fans didn't want to think about during the surprising playoff run. Now, the procrastination is nearing its conclusion.
As the Wizards left the court with their heads down, a loud roar emerged from the other side of the court. Pacers supporters were all gathered in the tunnel to the visiting locker room to cheer a team that was now one game away from the conference finals. For weeks, all they could think about was their team's uncomfortable future. What happens to Hibbert? Is Frank Vogel toast? Can they really re-sign Lance Stephenson? Why haven't any of Larry Bird's bench acquisitions worked out? Their cheers made it clear that they can now put aside all those questions.
Meanwhile, those heartbroken Wizards fans could only cross their fingers and hope that this team is not the flash in the pan that so many others in the past 35 years have been.