Wizards closer to Celtics than they appear

Jay Asser 04:24 04/05/2017
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One man show: Isaiah Thomas. Picture: Getty Images.

Explosive star performances, timely shots, injuries, spilled blood and even a knocked-out tooth have fuelled a playoff series that is shaping up to be a classic.

Yet while the Boston Celtics appear in control of the second-round clash with the Washington Wizards, their 2-0 series lead doesn’t reveal how closely-contested the match-up has been.

Heading into Game 3 tonight at Verizon Center, the series could just as easily be flipped 2-0 in favour of the Wizards, or tied at one apiece. The first two games at TD Garden went eerily similar, with Washington jumping out to a sizeable lead in the first quarter, only for Boston’s bench to close the gap before Isaiah Thomas outduelled John Wall in the second half.

The Celtics needed a heroic effort by Thomas to bail them out in Game 2’s 129-119 win on Tuesday, with the guard blowing up for 53 points, the second-most in Celtics postseason franchise history and the most by any player in the league since Allen Iverson’s 55 in 2003.

Thomas became just the eighth ever to score that many points in a postseason contest, joining legends like Michael Jordan (six times), Iverson (twice), Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley, Rick Barry and John Havlicek.

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Boston coach Brad Stevens profusely praised Thomas, but at the same time admitted his side were fortunate to hold serve at home.

“I don’t know if we figured anything out,” Stevens said. “We were lucky to win.”

That may sound like a case of a coach downplaying his team’s strong position, but Stevens has genuine concerns to deal with.

For one, Washington’s starting lineup has remained dominant through the first two games, fielding as a plus-32 total. They’ve blitzed Boston in first quarters, jumping ahead 16-0 in Game 1 and holding a 13-point lead at the end of the period in Game 2.

The lineup of Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat has only averaged 14.5 minutes in the series though, after playing 19.5 minutes per game during the regular season.

Staggered minutes, foul trouble and injuries, particularly to Morris (ankle), have factored into the five-man unit’s usage, but Wizards coach Scott Brooks could start to lean on it even more with his bench outscored by 11 points so far.

Washington’s drop-off in second halves can also be attributed to Boston ramping up its defence and physical play.

The Celtics’ trio of Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart have made life difficult for Wall and Beal after the intermission, with the three hounding defenders boasting a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 74.8, 87.5 and 95.2, respectively.

“We’re not playing tough enough,” a frustrated Morris said. “We had the advantage late in the game, and all we had to do was play tough. We didn’t have to make shots, we didn’t have to get stops, all we had to do was play tough.”

Returning home should benefit the Wizards, who were 30-11 at Verizon Center in the regular season, compared to 19-22 on the road.

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