The simple truth to the Wizards' series with the Boston Celtics is they have the more talented personnel, and the superior size. For the second game in a row, they dictated to Isaiah Thomas how it was going to be played and it resulted in a 2-2 tie in the East semifinals on Sunday.
"We feel like we're in control," said Wizards point guard John Wall, who keyed a 26-0 third-quarter run en route to a 121-102 victory at Verizon Center. "We have the momentum, coming home and winning our two games. We feel like we can win there. We know we can. We just have to take better care of those leads we get, just play smart basketball down the stretch. When you're on the road, you can't have those turnovers."
The Celtics had plenty in the third -- five alone from Thomas -- that produced 21 points for what turned into a 42-point quarter for Washington.
Since Thomas went for 53 points in a Game 2 comeback at TD Garden to beat the Wizards in overtime, he has been held to less than 20 points in two consecutive games.
Each team has held serve on their home court in the 2-2 regular-season series and now in the playoffs. As the No. 1 seed, the Celtics have home-court advantage so for the No. 4 seed Wizards to succeed they have to win there. They blew a 17-point lead in Game 1 before squandering a 13-point edge in Game 2.
But they seem to have a belief that they can win in Boston that they haven't had until now. This time it was the Celtics who lost a 12-point first-half lead to find themselves tied at 48 at the break. Then the seperation was created.
"It was all our defense. That's all it was," said Bradley Beal, who had a game-high 29 points on 11-for-16 shooting and spent a lot of time on the 5-9 Thomas. "We realized at halftime that we weren't defending the way we were capable of. ... We just came out in the third quarter with a better mind-set that everything was going to stem from the defensive end. We were able to force a lot of turnovers. On top of that, we converted."
They also did it without Kelly Oubre, the 6-7 defensive stopper who was suspended after a Game 3 altercation with Kelly Olynyk.
Thomas had no answers. He wasn't rewarded for whistles by jumping into Marcin Gortat when going at the rim. Instead, the Wizards made a concerted effort to not reach in and make him finish over their size.
"They were very physical. The refs were allowing them to hold and grab and do all those things," Thomas said. " Especially in that third quarter, I may have hit the ground five or six times."
Thomas had six turnovers for the game. When Marcus Smart was tasked to run the offense with him out of the game, he isn't that capable. Al Horford doesn't have a chance of staying in front of Wall on the pick-and-roll when he's the big on help, but when it's Amir Johnson or Olynyk it's a far greater mismatch. None of the three has the foot speed, lateral movement or shot-blocking to discourage Wall.
If Olynyk isn't knocking down three-point shots (0-for-4), he's a major liability. He stands 7-0 and had zero rebounds in 23 minutes.
Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley each shot 2-for-9. Smart was 2-for-7. After getting up just eight shots in a 27-point loss in Game 3, Thomas only got off 14.
Removing him from the equation is the linchipin to all the good things that happened Sunday.
"We just have to corral him," said Markieff Morris, another matchup problem for Boston because he's too versatile for Amir Johnson to cover and at 6-10 too big for Gerald Green or Smart when they go to small ball. "He's a small guy so at the end of the day if you've got three players around you, how can you make the pass? How can you make the shot? It's just basically what we've been doing and just trying to get the ball out of his hands. Hopefully the other guys miss shots like they've been doing."
The Wizards kept three defenders in tune to Thomas after the first quarter when he knocked down all three of his three-point looks. The primary defender, usually Beal or Wall, locked and trailed from behind on screens and handoffs and a frontline player pinched in to funnel him into the big in the middle that typically was Gortat.
"Our goal is to just take him out the game," said Beal, who drew most of the second-half assignments on Thomas when he was held to two points. "I just want to come in and be physical with him."
Thomas' off-balance rainbows didn't hit the mark. He was 2-for-8 inside the arc and didn't attempt a free throw as the Wizards' bigs were determined to not pick up cheap reach-ins. By keeping their hands up rather than outward, they didn't get whistles going against them.
Instead, it was Crowder and Smart in foul trouble. Thomas had four fouls as he was exploited again on post-ups trying to defend anyone bigger than him. The liability that he's posing on the defensive end gets bigger with each passing game.
"They were locked into him the whole game," Stevens said of Washington's defense on Thomas. "They did a little bit more switching. Gortat ended up on Isaiah more than a couple of occasions."
The lack of size everywhere caught up to Boston at least in these two road games. They're minus-26 rebounding after being manhandled 45-31 Sunday. They were just minus-three in the two wins at home.
Neither one of these teams has shown an ability to win on the road against the other but at least the Wizards have something to build on. They've come closer to winning at TD Garden than the Celtics have come to winning at Verizon Center.
"We know that we have the ability to win there," Wall said of Boston. "We have to bring the same defensive intensity that we had the two games that we had here because when we played there we didn't play great defense and we still had a chance to win those games."