How they match up: Celtics vs. Wizards
How they match up: Celtics vs. Wizards
CHICAGO – There wasn’t a ton of time for the Celtics to celebrate advancing to the second round of the playoffs when the NBA announced Game 1 of their best-of-seven series would begin Sunday afternoon – about 36 hours after each team moved on to the Conference semifinals.
It’s hard not to listen to the Oliver Stone in all of us who finds it a bit peculiar that Boston and Washington have such a quick turnaround, while Cleveland and Toronto – teams that closed out their playoff series in four and five games, respectively – don’t start their playoff series until Monday.
Regardless, the Celtics and Wizards will do what they’ve done all season and that’s play the games on the schedule.
And when it comes to playing, it’s no secret that these two teams get a little feisty – actually, quite feisty – when they play each other.
We have seen hard fouls, finger-pointing, demonstrative actions by both teams and what players on both teams agree is an overall dislike of the other.
But ultimately, this game comes down to which team will play better and that will be fascinating to watch when you consider how evenly matched these teams are in so many areas.
Here’s a look at the matchups for this series which, as Brad Stevens proved against the Chicago Bulls, in the first round, is subject to change.
POINT GUARDS: Isaiah Thomas vs John Wall
The two All-Star point guards are both effective, but do their work in a different kind of way. Thomas, the NBA’s No. 3 scorer this past season who led all Eastern Conference players in points per game (28.9), is an expert marksman. He has a lot of different ways to hit his target which makes him such a tough cover. He emerged as an All-Star because despite being 5-foot-9, he still finishes well at the rim. His 9.6 points in the paint scored per game this past season ranked fifth among all guards in the NBA. And when he’s not dropping a floater or angling a shot off the glass for a lay-up while a 6-foot-10 big man wonders "how the hell did THAT just happen?" Thomas finds a way to get to free throw line where he shot a career-high 90.9 percent this past season. Boston will need THAT Isaiah Thomas to show up in this series because unlike the first round, Thomas is facing a point guard in Wall who offensively speaking, is just as explosive.
And while Thomas relies heavily on getting to specific spots on the floor and score, Wall is simply a blur in high tops that teams consistently struggle to keep in check. Always blessed with tremendous end-to-end speed, Wall has shown significant growth in recent years by making those around him better. This past season, Wall averaged a career-high 10.7 assists per game. But what’s even more significant is it’s the third season in a row he has averaged 10 or more assists per game. Tack that on to a career-high 23.1 points per game in the regular season while shooting 45.1 percent from the field, also a career high, then you can understand why the Celtics are very concerned about limiting Wall’s impact in this series.
SHOOTING GUARDS: Avery Bradley vs Bradley Beal
No player seemed to up his stock more in the first round than Avery Bradley. He has been among the best on-the-ball defenders for years, but he really took it to another level in the Bulls series. Not only did he continue to defend at a high level against one of the best two-way players in Jimmy Butler, but he also delivered some serious scoring punch in the last couple of games for Boston to close out the series. In Games 5, Bradley had a career playoff-high 24 points. And to show it was no fluke, he came back in the series-clincher and dropped 23. Boston will need him to continue being a two-way standout against a talented Washington squad.
Bradley will certainly have his hands full against Beal, one of the young, bright emerging stars in the NBA. In Washington’s first-round series against Atlanta, Beal averaged 23.1 points per game. He shot a career-best 40.4 percent from 3-point range in the regular season. Extremely confident, the Celtics will throw multiple defenders at him and Wall throughout the series. And they’ll have to, because the one thing we know about Beal in the playoffs is this: he’s going to take a lot of shots. This is his third appearance in the playoffs. In each of the previous two, he averaged more field-goal attempts in the postseason than he did in the regular season. So far, this postseason isn’t any different. Against the Hawks, he took a playoff career-high 21.7 shots per game which is a noticeably up from his regular season average of 17.2 shots per game. That helps explain how is playoff scoring average 25.8 has risen despite his shooting (he’s making just 26.4 percent of his 3’s) taking a noticeable dip.
SMALL FORWARDS: Gerald Green vs Otto Porter Jr.
There’s one number that says it all about Gerald Green when it comes to what his role is in Boston’s starting lineup. That would be zero; as in zero assists in the playoffs. He’s a sniper in every sense of the word, called upon to help space the floor with his perimeter shooting. And if defenses get a little too close for comfort, he can beat players off the dribble and remind us all that once upon a time he was a slam dunk champion. His minutes will depend heavily on his shot-making, for sure.
As for Porter, the Wizards love his versatility, shot-making, rebounding and defensive skills. He’s a player that provides Wizards head coach Scott Brooks some flexibility to be a solid defensive club against the Celtics if Boston decides to go with a small-ball lineup, play a more traditional five-man lineup with two bigs, or potentially go big. And while Wall and Beal draw lots of attention because of their offensive prowess, that has led to stretches when defenses don’t pay Porter as much attention as they need to. And he has made many a teams pay for that, especially from 3-point range where he shot 43.4 percent during the regular season. His 3-point shooting and his rebounding (he averaged 6.4 boards during the regular season, 5.5 in the playoffs thus far) make among the bigger X-factors in this series.
POWER FORWARDS: Jae Crowder vs Markieff Morris
Crowder’s shooting has been hit-or-miss most of the playoffs, but his efforts defensively have not gone unnoticed. Crowder has been among the better defenders in the league this season because of his versatility. Celtics coach Brad Stevens inserted Gerald Green into the starting lineup because he wanted to create better spacing offensively. But the move was also made in order to get Crowder more time at power forward, which allows him to better utilize his skills at both ends of the floor. Crowder is giving up a few inches to Morris (He’s 6-6, Morris is 6-10). But as we saw in the Chicago series, Crowder tends to find a way to make up for whatever shortcomings he may have in a particular matchup.
As for Morris, he prevents a different kind of challenge to Crowder. He’s the kind of stretch big that doesn’t mind playing physical. He had quite a few battles with and Atlanta’s Paul Millsap on the floor, in addition to a war of words afterwards. Considering the bad blood between Crowder and the Wizards in general, don’t be surprised if these two at some point have to be separated after some harsh words are exchanged. Regardless, Morris is a really good player whose inside-outside game might force Stevens to go with a more traditional power forward (Jonas Jerebko, Kelly Olynyk) and move Crowder back to his more natural small forward position.
CENTERS: Al Horford vs Marcin Gortat
We saw as the Bulls series progressed, Horford’s impact only grew. He was the best passing center in the NBA this season, averaging a career-high 5.0 assists per game. But he can do a lot more than that. The Celtics needed him to really make an impact around the basket in the Chicago series, but his perimeter shooting might be required on a grander scale against the Wizards because physically, he can’t get into a ton of scrums around the rim with Gortat, who is the more physically stronger player. Horford has to pick his spots and do his part to keep Gortat away from the basket and hope that Boston’s guards and wing players can swoop in and keep things relatively competitive on the glass.
As for Gortat, is it me or does he seem to always play well against the Celtics? The Polish Hammer averaged 10.8 points against Boston this season, but did so while shooting 66.7 percent from the field. Keeping him off the boards isn’t likely to happen for Boston. But it’s critical to keep his rebounding numbers as close to single digits as possible which won’t be easy considering he averaged 10.4 during the regular season and gobbled up 10.7 in the Atlanta series.