As Paul Pierce walks off the court to a standing ovation, it's only at 3:28 of the third quarter of Sunday's Game 4 vs. the Toronto Raptors. The 15th sellout crowd at Verizon Center knows they won't see him again as the Wizards would transform that 23-point lead into a 125-94 victory to complete their best stretch of basketball of the season.
Leave it to Raptors coach Dwane Casey to put in perspective what happened in this first-round series: "Hats off to Washington. I think they had one of their best games I have ever seen them play. They hit every shot. I thought we were just emotionally drained and gave in. I was surprised but I kind of saw it coming. With how hard we played in the first game and overtime, emotionally I though we were just drained. Once they hit us with the haymakers, we didn't have enough emotional fortitude to sustain it."
Indeed. The Wizards set a franchise playoff record by making 15 of 26 three-pointers, or 57.7%. They shot 55.4% overall at 41 of 74. John Wall had 14 points on just five shots. Pierce had 14 on seven shots. Marcin Gortat scored 21 points on nine shots. Ramon Sessions came off the bench for 15 points on seven shots. The Wizards, who stole Game 1 in overtime in Toronto, improved with each game. The Raptors got worse. Pierce was the constant.
With the Wizards ahead 66-50 at halftime, the Raptors had one last chance to turn around a game. They were encouraged because though they trailed by 20 in the first half, they'd managed to cut it to eight. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, their All-Star backcourt, each shot at least 50% from the field.
Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Pierce buried a pair of three-pointers. Then with the shot clock running down after Gortat gathered an airball shot by Nene, Beal had to treat it like a hot potato. He short-armed it 32 feet away with no expectation that it would go in, but after taking a revolution around the rim it did. The lead was 77-55 and the game effectively was over.
"I think the turning point for this series was winning Game 2," Pierce said of that 117-106 victory when Wall and Beal combined for 54 points at Air Canada Centre. "When you go into a hostile environment and get two games, one is hard enough, but to get two games it really boosted our confidence to be able to come out after that and finish it off.
"Playoffs are a different game. The intensity goes up, more is on the line. That's when you see the stars become superstars and that's what you saw in this series tonight from John and Bradley Beal."
While it wasn't backcourt vs. backcourt, that debate had been kicked around all seasons. There should no longer be one when it comes to these teams. Lowry stayed in foul trouble. DeRozan is a volume shooter. They combined to shoot 14-for-28 for 35 points but also had nine turnovers.
Beal had a game-high 23 points, five assists and foul steals. He also made 11 trips to the foul line. Wall shot 3-for-5 but manufactured seven points from the stripe because of his aggressive tone attacking the paint. He added 10 assists which puts him at a 12.5 average for the series. They had six fewer turnovers in Game 4.
The closeout game is supposed to be the hardest one of all, especially against Toronto which won the season series 3-1 last year and 3-0 this year. But this wasn't.
"I needed to see that we were the desperate team tonight, that we were going to come out like our backs were against the wall and lay it out on the line and these guys did right from the start," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "That was a workman-like four wins for us. ... It started right with John. For a guy who control the game like he did tonight with five shots and orchestrated us, his pace at the start of the game was incredible."
The Wizards will be off Monday and use it for treatment and get back to practicing Tuesday. They'll play either the No. 1 seed Atlanta Hawks or the No. 8 Brooklyn Nets.