ATLANTA (AP) — John Wall refused to give in.
Even as Dennis Schroder took off the other way, ahead of everyone for what looked like an uncontested layup, Wall managed to chase him down.
On a night when Wall set a career playoff-high with 42 points, his remarkable defensive play was a big reason the Washington Wizards moved on to the second round of the playoffs with a 115-99 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night.
“That’s a sign of a champion,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said. “He gave us everything he had.”
The Wizards will face the top-seeded Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Game 1 is Sunday in Boston.
After the home team won the first five games of the opening-round series, the Wizards finally broke through on the road to end Atlanta’s season.
It was a much-needed confidence boost heading into a series lacking the home-court advantage.
“We can win on the road,” said Bradley Beal, who also came up big in the series-clinching victory with 31 points. “Just being able to withstand their run and coming together and getting the win on the road, that’s the biggest thing.”
Washington never trailed in Game 6, building a 22-point cushion early in the third quarter. Atlanta made a game of it, launching a furious comeback that closed the gap to 93-90 with more than eight minutes remaining. Schroder, one of the NBA’s fastest players, had a chance to cut it to a single point when he picked off Beal’s errant pass.
Then, at the offensive end, he split two defenders with a behind-the-back dribble and a crossover, somehow getting the driving shot to fall as he slammed into burly Paul Millsap. The Hawks missed a 3-pointer, Wall countered with a pull-up jumper, and just like that the Wizards were up 97-90.
They pulled away from there, getting 19 points from Wall in the final period.
Brooks is just as impressed with what Wall, as well as Beal, provide beyond the stat sheet.
“We have a lot of good players who help us win games, but his leadership and Brad’s leadership have been great for our young players,” the first-year Wizards coach said. “I couldn’t ask for two better guys to lead our team.”
Wall and Beal will certainly lead the way against the Celtics, who bounced back from losing the first games at home to beat No. 8 seed Chicago 4-2.
The Wizards split their four regular-season meetings against Boston, each team winning twice at home. While the Celtics surprisingly edged out defending NBA champion Cleveland for the top seed, they finished only four games ahead of No. 4 Washington in the East.
Boston looked downright vulnerable against the Bulls until Rajon Rondo went down with a broken thumb, missing the last four games of the season. The Celtics won them all, including a 105-83 clincher Friday night .
Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said Wall and Beal are a challenging 1-2 punch for any team to defend.
“When you have multiple pick-and-roll players, multiple ball-handlers, that can move you side to side,” he said. “And they’re different, too, so how you want to guard one isn’t how you want to guard the other. … No doubt they’ve both improved and both are playing well. Those guys are a handful.”
Wall averaged 29.5 points in the six games against the Hawks. Despite struggling early on with his shot, Beal finished the series at 25.8.
“That’s how they have to play for us,” center Marcin Gortat said. “They’re both the head of the snake. They both have to be productive for us.”
They might need a bit more help deeper into the playoffs. One option is Markieff Morris, who battled foul trouble through much of the series against the Hawks before settling down in Game 6. He was called for only two fouls, finishing with 17 points and eight rebounds.
But as long as the Wizards have Wall and Beal, they’ve got a chance.
“Listen, they’re bad boys, both of them,” Gortat said. “When they’re locked in, and when they’re playing team basketball, they’re ridiculously good. That’s enough.”
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