Eastern Conference First Round
No. 1 Boston at No. 4 Washington (TNT, 6:30 p.m. ET)
You’ll get little resistance saying that this has been the liveliest second-round playoff series to date. Not only did a fight almost break out in Game 3, but the first two games were among the most exciting we’ve seen in these entire playoffs.
Considering the teams have a history dating back a few seasons, making no secret of their dislike for one another, we’ve got a budding rivalry developing as the Wizards look to utilize their homecourt advantage to even things up 2-2.
The Celtics won’t have to deal with Washington backup wing Kelly Oubre, arguably its top on-ball defender, following his one-game suspension for his running shove of Kelly Olynyk in retaliation for what he felt was a dirty elbow thrown at his face. Oubre was ejected for Game 3 and disciplined again here, likely pushing Bojan Bogdanovic into the sixth man role.
“We’ve had a next-man-up mentality all year,” head coach Scott Brooks said Saturday. “We’ve got options. We can move some people around. But not having (Oubre), it’s not ideal, but it is what it is.”
Oubre came off the bench and helped frustrate Isaiah Thomas and Boston’s wings with his length, so there’s no question that is sure to affect Washington’s defense. Thomas scored just 13 points after exploding for 53 in the overtime win in Game 2. More than anything, the team did a better job on the pick-and-roll and didn’t give Thomas room to get comfortable. They were up in his personal space, which is a work of diligence more than anything else since he’s so small and slippery.
As things stand, the Celtics are undeniably fortunate to be up 2-1 in the series. Washington scored the first 16 points in Game 1 and were up when Markieff Morris severely sprained his ankle by landing on Al Horford’s foot, missing the rest of the contest. The Wizards let countless opportunities to win Game 2 slip out of their hands, having led by six points with 2:43 to go in regulation. John Wall and Beal each missed great looks before the final buzzer, and the Celtics dominated the extra five minutes after that.
Brad Stevens consistently repeated the phrase “Washington played well” like a revenge-seeking robot after Thursday’s 116-89 win. Maybe he was frustrated his team was involved in a game featuring eight technical fouls and three ejections, but anyone who watches that team regularly during the regular season will tell you that’s as animated and frustrated as he’s ever been during a game. Stevens normally has the look of a fantastic poker player, so something rattled him in that Game 3. His team struggled through a 22-0 run, so maybe Boston no-showed because they had little left to give. We’ll find out today.
Avery Bradley scored just seven points after suffering through a hip issue, so the extra day of rest could be vital for him. Because the Celtics essentially stole a game at home, they’ve got a free roll in this one. The Wizards have been fantastic at home all season, but face a must-win where all the pressure is on them given how difficult it would be to take three in a row when two of the games would be played in Boston. The Celtics can let it fly, which is how they managed to rally in Game 1 with their 19-for-39 3-point shooting. They outscored the Wizards 71-42 in the second and third quarters of that game, putting together the only significant run they’ve had over a lengthy stretch in the series.
In contrast, the Wizards have dominated first quarters, winning all three by a margin of 119-70, an average of nearly 40-23. John Wall hasn’t been bothered by anything the Celtics have thrown at him, while Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat have set excellent screens to help Washington dominate against the Boston starting five. It will be interesting to see whether Stevens makes an adjustment to try to mix it up.
“We’ll make adjustments as a team,” Thomas said. “I’ll watch film and see where I can pick them apart.”
Fouls could be a major part of this one since the team have been at odds so often this season and come in off a volatile Game 3. We could see physical play curbed early, which could lead to game-altering foul trouble and would likely favor the deeper Celtics. Of course, landing in the bonus quickly could also be beneficial to Wall given how unstoppable he can be in pushing pace and getting out in transition.
Game 3 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 115.7 points thus far.
Western Conference First Round
No. 2 San Antonio at No. 3 Houston (TNT, 9:05 p.m. ET)
It was puzzling to watch a team that is so intent on pushing tempo consistently walking the ball up the floor in playing right into San Antonio’s hands, but that is what most stood out in the Spurs 103-92 upset win in Game 3.
James Harden scored 43 points as the Spurs switched things up and kept the ball in his hands as opposed to sagging off teammates and shading their defense. Nobody else got off. Only Clint Capela, who hit 6-of-9 shots at the rim, shot better than 40 percent as Harden was held to just five assists after averaging 12 over the first two games. Mike D’Antoni opined that “nothing they did should have bothered us. We just didn’t play well.”
Popovich started rookie Dejounte Murray insted of Patty Mills in Tony Parker’s spot at the point, so we’ll see if he uses that wrinkle again since it didn’t backfire. Still, it is a gamble to throw him out there against a cagey defender like Patrick Beverley and not risk disrupting the rhythm of the other starters, so perhaps Manu Ginobili could get the nod.
Harden’s 43-point night featured 5-for-13 3-point shooting, but his teammates were just 7-for-26 around him from beyond the arc and each of Trevor Ariza’s makes came in the first half, helping lift an offense that was otherwise held to 39 points. It’s obvious that the strategy for San Antonio is to dare Harden, MVP frontrunner, to be efficient enough scoring the ball in one-on-one situations because they’re not going to let him get teammates going. Since he was held to just 13 points and had scored 20 or fewer in three of the four games prior to Friday, the assumption is that wrist and ankle injuries, nagging issues he’s been playing through, can keep him from dominating as he otherwise would. After opening the postseason by averaging 38.7 points over the first three games against Oklahoma City, he’d shot under 40 percent in three of the last four contests, entering Game 3 in a 22-for-81 shooting slump. He went 14-for-28 on Friday, which marked only the second time he’d shot 50 percent or better this postseason. His best game of the season against San Antonio, a 39-point, 12-assist night where he shot 65 percent, resulted in a 112-110 loss.
The Spurs may be on to something with daring him to beat them.
He’s made just 12 of his last 50 3-pointers.
Popovich and his staff have had a history of slowing Harden and forcing him out of his comfort zone with the likes of Leonard and Danny Green as primary defenders.
The Spurs closed out the Grizzlies in Memphis and are looking for their third straight playoff road win. They won Game 3 outright in an underdog role for the first time all postseason. They did sweep both regular-season meetings in Houston and would put themselves in position to go 4-0 and not return to the Toyota Center if they can pull off another upset. Including this series, Houston is just 2-11 against their Southwest Division, in-state rival since Dec. 2014.
The under is 3-2 over Houston’s last five games, but just 2-9 over San Antonio’s last 11. The under went 3-0-1 during the four regular-season meetings.