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.
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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Shattering glass ceilings has become Isaiah Thomas’ M.O., so anything he does at this point should come as no surprise. And yet, the pint-sized dynamo continues to stretch our wildest imaginations, scaling the loftiest bars and defying the most unconventional of conventional wisdom.
It’s truly difficult to come up with new words to describe what Thomas is doing right now, because it feels like we’ve used up most of the English language to capture his previous feats.
His performance in the Boston Celtics’ Game 2 victory over the Washington Wizards was the stuff of legend, not just in the context of the sport’s greatest franchise, but in the context of NBA history.
Thomas didn’t just score 53 points, he scored 53 points with the Celtics needing every bit of it to outlast Washington and, most remarkable of all, did it on what would have been his late sister Chyna’s 23rd birthday.
What Thomas must be going through on a personal level is unfathomable, and yet somehow, someway, he’s managed to play what is essentially just a game with the focus and desire of someone treating it as his only priority.
It’s impossible to use other examples to compare Thomas’ situation to, but his 53 points on their own say plenty.
Only eight other men have ever scored that many in a playoff game. Those names? Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley, Rick Barry and John Havlicek. That’s not just good company, that’s superstar, Hall of Fame company.
Superstardom is the level Thomas has been kept out of, like a bouncer standing behind a velvet rope giving you the feeling that you’re not good enough to get in. He’s exceeded expectations enough to be universally considered a star, but even during his breakout campaign this season, the murmurs were there. Could Thomas do it in the playoffs? Do the Celtics still need a true go-to scorer and first option? How much of a liability will his size, and in turn his defence, really be when it matters most?
Those questions remain mostly unsolved. One game – and make no mistake, what Thomas did in Game 2 broke new ground for him – cannot and does not change everything. If it wasn’t already the case though, it’s certainly now time to stop thinking of what he can’t do.
His ascension will inevitably hit a peak. Maybe it already has. But after everything Thomas has accomplished and the way he’s done it, are you willing to bet against him? Didn’t think so.
Somewhat surprisingly, the oft-prickly Gregg Popovich was in a joking mood after his San Antonio Spurs suffered the worst series-opening loss of his tenure.
Maybe it was Popovich taking solace in the idea that the rest of the series can’t go much worse for San Antonio than it did in the 126-99 blowout on Monday.
Or perhaps it was the effect of a man being resigned to the notion that if the opposition shoots as well as Houston did in the opener, there’s almost nothing you can do.
Considering Popovich, his demeanour could have been unrelated to the game altogether. Yet for as grim of a loss as the Spurs endured, the adjustments for San Antonio are clear heading into Game 2 tonight.
The Rockets’ 3-point shooting isn’t a fluke, but even for the most triple-happy team in the league, their Game 1 performance was an aberration. Houston connected on 22-of-50 3-pointers, tying their postseason franchise record and recording the second-most by any team in a playoff game.
While the Spurs’ defence appeared to be their most significant issue on paper, it was the other end of the court that set up Houston’s attack.
San Antonio’s offence attempted to match the Rockets’ up-tempo pace and beat them in a shootout, going against their nature. The Spurs are comfortable featuring a deliberate attack, as evidenced by their pace (possessions per game) of 88.16 in the first round against Memphis and 96.41 in the regular season, which was fourth-lowest in the league. As a result, San Antonio liberally fired away shots that led to Houston getting out in transition and scoring 27 fast break points.
“We disobeyed a lot of basic basketball rules that they could take advantage of,” Popovich said. “If we’re going to shoot quickly and shoot poorly, it’s going to be a fast-break deal all night long, and they were better at that than we are. So we’ve got to play a lot smarter than what we saw tonight.”
What was also evident in Game 1 is the Spurs’ need for LaMarcus Aldridge to play a larger factor.
The forward finished the opener an astronomical minus-36 in just 25 minutes, providing little to nothing on both ends of the floor.
When Aldridge was the primary defender, Houston players scored 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the field, including 5-of-10 from beyond the arc. Particularly when he was matched up against Ryan Anderson, Aldridge was slow on rotations when the ball found the Rockets’ sharpshooter on the
perimeter, yielding open 3s.
Aldridge’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was 122.3, and yet his offence was somehow worse.
He contributed 4 points on 2-of-7 shooting and had a team-worst offensive rating of just 62.3 as he failed to take advantage of his size mismatch or make plays out of double-teams.
“I definitely have to help out Kawhi,” Aldridge said. “He did his part tonight. I have to take my time down there and make them pay.
“Once we started missing easy shots, I think after that, we all just tried to start searching and started playing too fast. We just kind of got frantic.”