Eastern Conference First Round
No. 4 Washington at No. 1 Boston (TNT, 8:00 p.m. ET)
After letting leads slip away in each of the first two games of the series, the Wizards showed some mental toughness in holding serve at home to even things back up. Although that keeps this from being a must-win situation, Washington wants no part of falling behind and putting itself in a situation where one more loss would deliver its demise.
The Wizards won Game 5 in the first round against Atlanta with the series tied at 2-2, but that contest was played in D.C.’s Verizon Center, where they’re a perfect 5-0 this postseason. This one will come inside Boston’s TD Garden, where the Celtics have won four straight after losing to Chicago twice there to open the playoffs. Washington is just 1-4 SU/ATS and is the only team that remains alive despite a losing record on the road during the regular season.
It failed to win in Boston during the regular season too and hasn’t done so since the final day of the 2014 season, allowing them to earn the No. 5 seed that year as the Celtics missed the playoffs. Washington is looking to put itself one win from its first conference finals appearance since 1979.
Defeating the Hawks 115-99 to advance out of the first round was viewed as a major step forward for first-year Wizards coach Scott Brooks and his team. They carried over that momentum by surging to a 16-0 start in Game 1 against Boston before a 3-point barrage that ended up shattering the storied franchise’s all-time record for most makes beyond the arc in a single game at 19 fueled an impressive comeback.
As was the case in the Hawks series, where Markieff Morris called Paul Millsap a “crybaby” and Washington players got into it with the likes of Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder, this has been contentious too. The teams have a history of dislike for one another that dates back years and has only intensified in a playoff atmosphere. Key backup Kelly Oubre, Jr. will return to the mix after serving a one-game suspension for his role in escalating a Game 3 skirimish after his running shove of Kelly Olynyk in retaliation for what he felt was a dirty elbow thrown at his face.
The Wizards survived his absense and took all the mystery out of Sunday’s contest with a Game 4-clinching 26-0 third-quarter run, their third such onslaught of 16 or more consecutive points in the series. Brooks called it Washington’s “best stretch of basketball” this season. After averaging 43 points in the Celtics’ home wins, Thomas was held to a scoring average of 16 in D.C. and comes off a game where he failed to shoot a single free-throw despite feeling like he was often manhandled on the perimter.
The posturing for Game 5 calls came immediately after Sunday’s 121-102 loss, so look for the Celtics to be aggressive in trying to attack so that they can land a few Washington regulars in foul trouble on the road tonight. Wizards starters are a plus-148 in the series, dominating the action when their first five are on the floor and struggling whenever even one of them sits.
Oubre’s return takes some pressure off other key reserves Bojan Bogdanovic and Jason Smith, but there’s no question that Brooks wants to maximize opportunities where his starters can remain on the floor, limiting Boston’s ability to go small. Making matters worse, the Celtics are clearly operating with starting guard Avery Bradley’s hip pointer issues contributing to their last two losses. After scored just seven points on 3-for-8 shooting in Game 3, Bradley shot 2-for-9 on Sunday and had nearly as many turnovers (4) as he did points (5).
“I got tight. It’s really my fault,” Bradley told reporters in Boston on Tuesday. “I have to make sure I’m staying loose throughout the game, and I guess you learn through your experiences. I’ll make sure I’m prepared for the next game.”
The Celtics have to hope that an extra day between games will help him recover since he hadn’t had hip pointer issues until this series, but two days off can also be viewed as an advantage for Washington, which is blessed with significantly less depth. Bradley said Tuesday that he felt a lot better, but we won’t really know until the first few possessions whether it remains an issue.
Beyond an ability to shoot the ball from beyond the arc, Bradley is the Celtics’ top on-ball defender and frankly, one of the best in the league. He helped frustrate Wall into an 0-for-9 start in Game 4, but Washington’s All-Star point guard rebounded with 27 points, 12 assists and five steals to help offset his seven turnovers. He averaged 30 points and 14.5 assists in the two losses in Boston, so he’s clearly not been bothered by anything the opposition has done at TD Garden. The 10 3-pointers he put up in Game 2 can be viewed as an example of him settling for a shot that he isn’t overly comfortable with, so look for a concerted effort to try and get to the free-throw line as opposed to taking shots he typically avoids. Wall has set an NBA playoff record with 11 consecutive games of at least 20 points and seven assists.
Bradley Beal comes off his best game of the series, shooting 11-for-16 from the field i putting up 29 points. When last he took the floor at TD Garden, his inability to hit key shots cost his Wizards Game 2 as he ended up 4-for-15, including 1-for-9 from 3-point range. He missed a game-winner at the end of regulation and followed it up with a 4-for-12 stinker in Game 3, so rebounding like he did on Sunday was a sight for sore eyes for Wizards fans. Washingon is 4-2 during these playoffs when Wall and Beal combine for 50 or more points.
Boston won the first quarter for the first time in Game 4, 24-20, as Brad Stevens went big and again started Amir Johnson in place of Gerald Green. The Wizards had dominated the opening 12 minutes in the first three games, winning each period by a combined margin of 119-70, an average of nearly 40-23.
If the Celtics can continue to reverse that trend, they’ll not only go a long way in making sure their homecourt edge holds up deep into Wednesday night, they’ll also avoid digging themselves a hole like they have for most of the series. At this point, coming off a pair of lopsided wins following missed opportunities in Boston, the lower-seeded Wizards enter Game 5 extremely confident.
“We’re the better team and we feel like we’ve been the better team,” Morris said.
Game 3 has produced the first ‘under’ of the series, but Boston won the last four games against Chicago in lower-scoring games and would prefer to slow down a Wizards offense averaging 116.8 points thus far in the series. The Wizards are just 2-8 straight up as an underdog over their last 10 games. The Celtics have won and covered in their last six games as a favorite. The opening line (4.5) and total (215) are in line with what we’ve seen through the first four contests in this series.