Al Horford wasn't supposed to be the guy.
He would not be denied.
The Hawks centre swooped in to snatch an offensive rebound and dropped in a shot from right under the basket with 1.9 seconds remaining, giving top-seeded Atlanta an 82-81 victory over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night and a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"I wasn't supposed to be involved in the play at all," Horford said. "When I saw the ball go up, I just ran in there."
In a game of back-and-forth runs, the Hawks went more than 7 minutes in the fourth quarter without making a basket, then ripped off 14 straight points to take the lead. Atlanta went cold again, and it looked as though Paul Pierce had doomed Atlanta for the second time in the series. Having already made a buzzer-beating winner in Game 3, he got open in the corner and swished a 3-pointer with 8.3 seconds left, putting the Wizards up 81-80.
Pierce taunted the Hawks bench and home crowd on his way back down the court before bowling over John Wall, who was playing for the first time since Game 1 after fracturing several bones in his left hand.
Wall didn't mind, throwing up his hands in celebration. The Wizards were on the verge of heading home with a chance to wrap up the series.
Atlanta had one more chance.
The Hawks gave the ball to backup point guard Dennis Schroder, who ignited a fourth-quarter rally and stayed in the game at the suggestion of All-Star Jeff Teague, who watched the closing minutes from the bench.
Schroder drove down the lane and put up a shot, which was swatted off the backboard by Wall. But Horford yanked the ball away from Nene, who tumbled to the court, leaving the Hawks centre all alone under the basket. Horford, who had 23 points and 11 rebounds, put it the easy shot on a night when both teams struggled offensively.
"A heck of a play by Al," Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said.
The Wizards threw up a wild shot from halfcourt that didn't come close as the horn sounded. The sellout crowd nearly stormed the court, held back by security while the Hawks celebrated. Horford screamed and pumped his fists, having put the Hawks one victory away from advancing to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since the team moved to Atlanta from St. Louis in 1968.
About 10 minutes after the Wizards lost, there was more heartbreak for D.C. sports fans. The Capitals were eliminated from the NHL playoffs with a Game 7 overtime loss to the New York Rangers.
At least the Wizards still have a chance. Game 6 is Friday night in Washington.
"Hey, these guys are fighting. I love it," Washington coach Randy Wittman said. "They made one more play than us."
Wall's return was the major storyline before the game. The Wizards star fractured several bones in his left hand in the series opener and missed the next three games. He was announced as the starter about 20 minutes before tipoff and wound up with 15 points, seven assists and four steals.
Bradley Beal led the Wizards with 23 points.
Kyle Korver had a tough night for Atlanta, making only one basket. It was a huge one, however — a 3-pointer with 4:58 remaining for Atlanta's first basket of the fourth quarter. Horford followed with another 3 from the corner, and the Hawks were right back in the game.
At the end, he wound up with the ball a lot closer to the basket.
"We're happy," Horford said, "but we understand it's one game."
Wizards: Pierce scored 11 points and hit 3 of 6 from 3-point range. ... Otto Porter had nine points and 10 rebounds, providing Washington's only scoring off the bench. ... The Wizards shot 37.5 per cent. ... Ramon Sessions, who filled in ably for Wall during his absence, was held scoreless in 17 minutes.
Hawks: Atlanta outrebounded the Wizards 50-46. ... The Hawks were held to 41 per cent shooting, going 5 of 22 from 3-point range. ... Not known for his shot-blocking skills, Korver swatted away two attempts in the first half. ... This is the closest Atlanta has come to advancing to the third round since 1988, when the Hawks held a 3-2 lead on Larry Bird and the Celtics, but lost the final two games.
UNLEASHING THE MOOSE
Second-year centre Mike Muscala was barely used by the Hawks during the first eight games of the playoffs, logging only 10 minutes of court time — and much of that coming in the closing stages of a blowout win that clinched the first-round victory over Brooklyn.
But, after leading a furious comeback that came up just short in Game 3, Muscala has become a key member of Atlanta's rotation off the bench. He scored Atlanta first eight points of the second quarter, and had three rebounds in nearly 15 1-2 minutes.
Muscala's emergence has come at the expense of Mike Scott, who didn't play for the third time in the last four games.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963