In each of the first two games of their series, the Washington Wizards stormed out to big first-quarter leads behind stellar play from their starting lineup, only to watch their reserves cough up the advantage as the deeper Boston Celtics walked them down and overtook them late. On Thursday, though, the Wiz did more than just hold on.
Using balanced scoring and a cranked-up defensive effort, the Wizards kept unrelenting pressure on the C’s for 48 minutes, earning a feisty, physical and impressive 116-89 win that got Washington on the board in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals series.
John Wall led six Washington players in double figures with 24 points, eight assists and three steals in 34 minutes. Swingman Otto Porter Jr. made his first seven shots from the field on his way to 19 points with eight boards, three steals and two assists.
Center Marcin Gortat added a double-double with 13 points and 16 rebounds for the Wizards, who never trailed on Thursday due in part to their work mauling the Celtics inside, out-rebounding Boston 50-38 edge and posting a 56-28 advantage in points in the paint.
After hanging 123 and 129 points on the Wizards in Games 1 and 2, Boston just could not get its offense untracked on Thursday. Al Horford led the way with 16 points for the Celtics, who shot just 35.1 percent from the field as a team — their worst shooting night of the season.
Coming off a historic 53-point performance to ignite Boston’s Game 2 win, star point guard Isaiah Thomas struggled all night against a swarming Wizards team that threw multiple defenders at him. He didn’t score his first points until the 1:22 mark of the first quarter, and finished with just 13 points on 3-for-8 shooting. It’s only the the second time since joining the Celtics at the 2015 trade deadline that he hasn’t taken at least nine field-goal attempts.
Game 4 tips at 6:30 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Despite leaving Boston with a 2-0 lead, Celtics coach Brad Stevens decided to shake up his starting lineup — out went Amir Johnson, in came Gerald Green, just like in Round 1 against the Chicago Bulls — in hopes of better matching up with a Wizards starting five that flame-broiled the Celtics in the first quarters of Games 1 and 2. Washington didn’t have much trouble scoring against a smaller Boston lineup featuring Horford at center and Jae Crowder at power forward, but the Celtics were getting and converting good looks, too, leading to a 12-all tie with 6 1/2 minutes to go in the opening frame.
And then, the Wizards got loose.
With Wall attacking and pushing the pace, Washington left the C’s in the dust, ripping off a 22-0 run in five-minute, 10-second span to completely seize control of the game. Porter made plays on both ends, using his length to clog passing lanes, force turnovers and shoot over the top of smaller Boston defenders. Bojan Bogdanovic, he of three made shots in Games 1 and 2 combined, came off the bench to drill a pair of early 3-pointers. A more locked-in and attentive Wizards defense absolutely swallowed up the Celtics’ ball-handlers, forcing five turnovers in that five-minute run that turned into eight points, as Wall hit the gas in transition.
By the time Wall had answered a Marcus Smart floater with a quarter-closing fadeaway jumper, Washington had built a 39-17 lead. Twenty-two points is a lot — more than 14, which was the Wizards’ lead heading into the second quarter of Game 1, and 13, their edge after 12 minutes of Game 2. But still: Wall had played the entire first quarter, and we just saw Washington give back those two double-figure leads in the blink of an eye. When Wall went to the bench, could the Celtics make a run and tighten things up?
But instead of throwing a second-quarter haymaker, the Celtics … well, they threw a stiff screen.
Shortly after a brief skirmish between Celtics forward Jonas Jerebko and back-from-a-long-injury-absence Wizards center Ian Mahinmi, Boston’s Kelly Olynyk put a shoulder straight into Kelly Oubre Jr.’s chin, prompting an incensed Oubre to truck Olynyk, leading to his ejection — and, very possibly, his suspension. It seemed like the game might have reached an inflection point; with the already thin Wizards now down a key piece of their perimeter rotation, and perhaps overloaded with emotion, this could be Boston’s chance to make a run.
And they might have, too, if the Wizards ever cooled down.
Meanwhile, the Wizards continue to hit every shot
— Michael Pina (@MichaelVPina) May 5, 2017
The Wiz kept pouring it on, short-circuiting Boston’s offense and continuing to generate good looks. Washington turned to a strategy it had only tried in small doses through the first two games — hunting down the 5-foot-9 Thomas wherever Boston was trying to hide him and bringing him down to the block — and found enough success in posting up the 6-foot-8 Porter that Celtics coach Brad Stevens switched Thomas back onto Wall.
They started to go to that well too often, though, and Boston was ready for it, with Horford sliding into help position behind the battling Thomas while wing defenders Crowder, Avery Bradley and Gerald Green lurked in passing lanes behind them to force deflections and generate turnovers. Even so, though, they couldn’t get closer than 19 points before the Wizards restored order with a couple of buckets — including a sweet high-low dish from Markieff Morris to Gortat as he cut behind an overhelping Horford for a layup between two Boston defenders — to head into halftime up 63-40.
Boston would never seriously threaten in a second half most notable for a brief early-fourth-quarter “WTF?” trash-talk battle between Wizards guard Brandon Jennings and the Celtics’ Terry Rozier that saw the refs hand out a pair of double-technicals that earned each dude an ejection. At a certain point, the combination of the Wizards’ two-way domination and the Celtics’ inability to get anything going turned garbage time into an exercise in avoiding long-lasting damage:
There's 10 minutes left to not get suspended. Only thing left to play for.
— Paul Flannery (@Pflanns) May 5, 2017
Oubre’s status going forward will bear the closest watching, but beyond that, what Thursday night made clear was something that Stevens had mentioned before Game 3: that even though they were down 0-2, the Wizards had proven plenty capable of not only hanging with the top-seeded Celtics, but of putting a real hurt on them.
If Beal had made that open potential game-winner & then this game happened, it'd feel like Cs were on ropes. As it stands, home-court holds.
— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) May 5, 2017
Now, they know they can do it for a full 48 minutes, even if they don’t get big games from Morris (10 points, five rebounds) or Bradley Beal (who scored Washington’s first seven points before cooling down and finishing with 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting). Do it again come Sunday, and we’ll have ourselves a series.
Thomas and his Celtics have gotten plenty of experience this postseason in battling through adversity and picking themselves up off the mat. They’ll have to do it again in Game 4, because the Wizards showed Thursday that they’re ready to join the fight, eager to trade blows, and capable of knocking the C’s out.
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