Washington is well aware that it will have to break through at least once in Boston to make the franchise’s first Eastern Conference final since the Jimmy Carter administration. The Wizards get their first opportunity at TD Garden on Wednesday night. They will have to keep Boston on edge in a building in which they’ve lost seven straight times.
Wednesday’s Game 5 should feature both rosters at full strength, in relative terms at least, and with quite a bit left to give. Boston and Washington both took care of business at home through four spirited contests, leaving the series tied 2-2, but only the Wizards should feel as if they had a chance in all four conference semifinal games. What’s lost is lost, though, and for once the “play it like it’s a Game 7” pablum doesn’t feel all that hollow.
Nothing does, in a series that has featured ejections, verbal scrapes, suspensions and (to date) an unclaimed crown as the East’s official No. 2. The Cleveland Cavaliers have yet to lose a game in the postseason (they’ve lost just 10 quarters so far, even) and could be off for another week as these two sort things out.
Starting in Boston, for a best-of three, in a building where the Wizards haven’t won since April 16, 2014. When Al Harrington scored five points for Washington in the team’s 118-102 conquest over a Celtics team featuring Brad Stevens in his rookie year.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks wasn’t around for that one, but he will be in Boston for Game 5 and, if things go as just about everyone hopes, Monday’s Game 7 back in the same city:
“If we want to advance, we have to win a game up there. So we’re looking at this as the first crack to do that.”
Brooks deserves credit for not plugging the next two contests of the 2-2 series as end-alls. There is still an “if necessary” next to Monday’s Game 7, and quite a bit can happen in a series that, thankfully, hasn’t seen much by way of fluke or freak incident in spite of some sparkling, competitive play. These two squads aren’t running nearly as much as the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz did, but the offensive production has remained top-notch.
Just get through that series bro….
— Draymond Green (@Money23Green) May 9, 2017
In spite of the swift move to distance themselves from the visiting Celtics in Game 4 on Sunday, Wizards guard John Wall appeared to have plenty of time between the final buzzer and his postgame comments to consider just what was awaiting him in Boston:
“It’s an important game for those guys,” Wall said. “It’s an important game for both of us, but more important for those guys going back home. They understand if we get an opportunity to win there, we get a chance to close it out here. They’re going to come out and be aggressive, play better than they did here and their fans are going to be amazing.”
Wall’s been here before, working in the conference semis in 2014 and 2015 (a series Wall mostly lost due to injury) before missing the playoffs entirely in 2016. The 26-year-old All-Star has averaged an astounding 28.8 points and 11.1 assists in the 2017 postseason, and he doesn’t need a travel reminder to alert him to the idea that players like Marcus Smart will be cutting and quirking much quicker in Boston.
The role players will awaken at home, as they always do. That means you’re probably not going to see the sort of combined shooting efforts you saw from Smart and rookie Jaylen Brown in Game 3 (5-for-18 from the floor), and that Avery Bradley will likely display the results of 70 hours’ worth of self-reflection after a 5-for-17 mark in the two Washington games.
The Wizards are ready for that, but the trick is to become ready for when the shots actually fall. Beyond that, it has to be star time.
The Wiz made a point to keep Bradley Beal’s hands warm early in Game 4, peppering him with eight field goal attempts in the game’s first 14:35 to send him on his way to a team-high 29 points in the win. Beal entered Sunday evening shooting less than 37 percent from the floor, not exactly providing indifferent play so much as contributing only unfocused, unsure movements.
That cannot sustain if the Wizards are to take a game in Boston, or even if they want to play to save their season’s life in Game 6.
Brooks, because he’s smart and wears glasses, wants to focus on Beal’s sometimes-there defense as a way to get us to stop talking about his offensive struggles in this postseason:
“It probably does get overlooked because he’s so smooth with what he does offensively. He’s a gifted shooter,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “His ballhandling, his pick-and-roll game is much improved over this past season. But defensively it’s not about getting steals.
“You can lead the league in steals and get two or three a game but you can be out of position 30 or 40 times a game. Brad is solid defensively. To me those are all-defensive type of players, just solid. They make the right plays and they’re there for their team, there for their teammates. Brad is definitely on his way to being one of the best two-way players in the game.”
That’s lovely, but the Wizards didn’t get here with a two-way game. They outscore teams, and they’ll need Beal to lock in from the outset. He needs to facilitate and threaten, while Wall works up that sweat on his brow.
Wall’s accomplishments are notable; his end-to-end forays are not subtle. But the Wizards appear to play at their best when he and his surgically repaired knees take some time to warm to the moment. Fully Krausened, he can then take advantage of timely turnovers to turn nine-point games into What Sunday Became For Boston:
You’ll recall Stevens’ opinion of those turnovers:
“One thing is, if you turn the ball over against these guys, you’d prefer to drop-kick it into the stands so that at least you could set your defense,” Stevens said. “Their attack in transition killed us. In each of these [last] two games. … Last game it was [a 22-0 run] in the first quarter. Today it was in the third quarter. They made us pay for it.”
The Celtics turned the ball over 20 times in Game 4, nine times in that destructive third quarter alone. The Wizards struggle at times defensively, but they’ve hounded opponents into miscues at a top-three rate during the 2016-17 regular season. Boston will make mistakes, and Washington’s group of mindful athletes knows what to do with the ball once it pops loose. Brooks was right when he called Game 4’s 26-0 run the team’s “best stretch of basketball” this season. It sure as hell better have been.
A lot of those new 50/50 bobbles will go to the Celtics in Boston, though. As will the calls, and the spark in Smart’s head that tells him to fling his way to the hoop without the ball, rather than trying to dribble through trouble with it. Perhaps Stevens will have the temerity to take a timeout, especially during a prickly Washington run, in places he didn’t down in D.C. There are probably some plays that the coach and his crew would like to have back.
The Celtics – top-seeded, well-versed (in everything but etiquette) and rested – will be at full strength on Wednesday, looking to re-ignite some of the spark that fueled their ascent into the realm of the Eastern elite midseason and made them so fearsome in dismissing Chicago in the first round. Working up sensible, mistake-free ball with added stops and contributions from all comers will be enough for a win.
The Wizards have the stars to get in front of that, though. They won’t need Al Harrington, this time.
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