Wes Unseld walked onto the court with a cane. A new, bigger banner was raised. The fans received replica rings that included the phrase "the fat lady sings" — a championship catchphrase from so long ago that John Wall had no clue as to its significance.
But Wall is a student of the game, and he wanted to do his best in front of the old guard. On a night when the Washington Wizards celebrated the 35th anniversary of the franchise’s only title, the team’s current leader played like someone who might someday carry on that legacy, scoring 37 points in a display of speed and flair Saturday to lead a 104-85 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
"You don’t want to lose on a night like this," Wall said.
Wall made 16 of 25 shots, throwing his palms up after making an improbable 14-foot sideways runner and flexing his muscles to the fans on the first row after banking in a fast-break layup. He even blocked a layup attempt by Roy Hibbert, the 6-foot-4 point guard rising to swat the ball away from the 7-foot-2 Pacers center.
Wall also had five assists, four rebounds and two blocks for the lottery-bound Wizards, who have won nine straight at home and are 18-4 at the Verizon Center this season when he’s on the floor. He’s also becoming more animated, clearly enjoying his best run since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2010.
"I think whenever you’re feeling good and you’re playing good, you’re more into the game," Wall said. "You’re more enthused, you’re more happy. … After all the stuff I’ve been through this season with injuries and missing so many games, and having people say what they say about me, it means a lot."
Added coach Randy Wittman: "If he’s going to give me 37, he can flex all he wants — and a win. You’ve got to let kids have emotions, just as long as we don’t lose our emotions."
Unseld, Elvin Hayes and the other members of the 1978 team got together for a dinner Friday night and were honored at halftime Saturday. The franchise, for at least one more evening, was again known as the Bullets.
"I think our guys wanted to come out and not let them down," Wittman said.
The Wizards also spoiled a title celebration for the Pacers, who failed in a blowout for the second night in a row to get the win they need to clinch their first Central Division crown in nine years. Indiana also fell two games behind the New York Knicks in the race for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Hibbert had 25 points and 10 rebounds for the Pacers, but Paul George had the worst shooting game of his NBA career, going 0 for 8 from the field. He was 3 for 11 the previous night in a 22-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"I’ve just got to get my legs back under me," George said. "Just get my mental focus back."
No one on the Wizards roster was born when the Bullets won their title. Before the game, five players in the locker room — Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Booker, Garrett Temple and A.J. Price — had no clue that "The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings" became the unofficial theme to the Bullets’ seven-game series win over the Seattle SuperSonics in the finals.
She could’ve sung early Saturday night because the Pacers went cold at the start of the second half. The Wizards took a 51-48 halftime lead and turned it into 63-48, with Wall scoring half of the points in the 12-0 run. Indiana didn’t get closer than seven the rest of the game.
Wall didn’t play when the Wizards went 0-3 against the Pacers earlier this season because he was out until early January with a knee injury. Indiana coach Frank Vogel made his players acutely aware of that fact before the game, writing on the board: "He’s a difference maker."
"He was too much for us to handle tonight," Vogel said.
NOTES: Hayes on the halftime celebration: "If you don’t win a championship, you’re always governed by that. Because they’ll say ‘Well, you’re a great player,’ like Charles Barkley or Karl Malone have to go through. They’ll say, ‘You’re a great player but you didn’t win.’ So this really put the cherry and the cap on our careers." … Hayes also wasn’t impressed by the Wizards’ recent winning spurt. "You’re getting a few wins right now, but you’re not going anyplace," he said. "Plus you’re losing the draft choices."