BOSTON – When the Wizards look back on their semifinal series loss to the Boston Celtics, they’ll think about giving away double-digit leads in the first two road games just as much as Monday’s 115-105 loss in Game 7 at TD Garden.
Despite a left ankle injury to Markieff Morris in Game 1, Ian Mahinmi’s absence until Game 3, Kelly Oubre’s and Brandon Jennings’ ejections and an overflowing of bad blood during the regular season, victory was theirs to be had until Isaiah Thomas (29 points, 12 assists) and Kelly Olynyk – yes, Olynyk (26 points) -- came alive to boost Boston and send their team to the conference finals vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers that starts Wednesday.
Olynyk was a factor with 12 points after three quarters, but he knocked down open looks, drives and on post-ups on Washington.
The Wizards never led in the series, falling down 2-0 before holding off elimination in Game 6 until they succumbed. It would’ve been their first conference final since 1979 but the No. 4 seed in the East made their deepest progress in the postseason in 38 years regardless.
Bradley Beal (38 points) had his best game of the series and almost single-handedly erased a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter. John Wall (18 points, 11 assists), who made the game-winner on a three-pointer on Friday, steadied them through a bad start when they trailed 10-2 to lead at halftime 55-53. They went up 70-64 with 6:52 left in the third quarter but couldn’t sustain it.
When the offense bogged down with overdribbling and bad pass turnovers, including by Beal during a 9-2 run for Boston to begin the fourth quarter, what had been a nervous sellout crowd exploded to carry them to the finish line. Al Horford (15 points, six rebounds), Jae Crowder (14 points, five rebounds) were enough along with spurts off the bench from Marcus Smart (13 points) and Jaylen Brown (nine points).
Boston has been a problem matchup for the Wizards for several years, whether it was Thomas or Phil Pressey running the point and breaking their will time after time. Monday wasn’t any different.
They swept the Wizards 4-0 in the 2015-16 season which included blowouts by 20, 33 and 25 points. This season, Boston won 117-108 and 110-102 at TD Garden in a regular-seasons series that tied at 2.
There was Wall’s flagrant foul ejection on Smart and a post-game confrontation between Wall and Crowder in the regular season that led to both players being fined by the league. Oubre had to serve a one-game suspension after a confrontation with Olynyk.
Despite the Celtics finishing with four more wins, the Wizards truly felt they had the better personnel and that coach Scott Brooks was at least Brad Stevens’ equal.
Wall is bigger and better than Thomas in every category on which point guards today are judged except shooting threes. And when the Wizards made their run they went at Thomas successfully to compromise Boston’s defense. They had to help and the ball movement found open shooters or Thomas was just beaten.
Beal hadn’t been the 40% three-point shooter in the playoffs that he was most of the season, but he shot 5-for-10 from long range in the loss
Morris forces the Celtics to go away from Amir Johnson trying to defend him. Instead they crossmatch Horford which gives Gortat a more favorable and smaller opponent on him in Johnson. That’s why the Wizards were plus-35 rebounding in their three wins entering Monday. That was still pronounced (43-31) but the Celtics overcame it.
Marcin Gortat was out of sync all night. He didn’t convert his first field goal until midway through the fourth quarter in transition. He couldn’t make his size work for him and that led to four turnovers as he failed to post up the likes of Brown.
Whether or not Porter will command $100 million as a restricted free agent this summer, he remains an ultimate team player. He went scoreless in Game 6 but was the spark early that kept the Wizards viable when it could’ve gotten ugly early. He had 12 points and seven rebounds by halftime.
If Brooks needs defense on small guards and wants to give the opponent a different look, he can go to the 6-8 Porter, or the 6-7 Oubre and his 7-2 wingspan, or 6-7 rookie Tomas Satoransky who’ll get spot duty. But Oubre and Satoransky didn’t play a role Monday as Brooks tightened his rotation.
If Gortat isn’t a good matchup or having a good outing, there’s 6-11 Ian Mahinmi who is an athletic rim protector and can cover pick-and-roll. But even he wasn’t much help. He picked up four fouls in his first seven minutes.
They had all of these advantages on the top seed and couldn’t make it work.
After all, what did Boston have outside of Thomas? Mostly, one-dimensional role players but they played with a grit on their home floor that the Wizards couldn’t crack.
Stevens did a masterful job with molding what he has into a 53-win team that got this far.
Horford is a big part of that success. In his first season after spending nine years with the Atlanta Hawks, he chose the Celtics over the Wizards in free agency last summer. Crowder’s recruiting pitch to him was to stay away from Washington. “You're a winner,” Crowder said of his conversation with the big man. “That's what Boston's all about — winning. You'll fit right in.”
This second round series proved him correct, but this letdown for the Wizards won’t take away a season that was a significant surprise.
No one thought they’d win 49 games, or be a serious threat to get this deep when they began 2-8.
Of course, Wall and Beal won’t be consoled by this.
“It’s about doing the little things and doing them every time down the court and keeping it simple,” Brooks said before tipoff. “We’ve got 48 minutes to prove we’re the better team.”
The Celtics wore all-black attire to Game 6 at Verizon Center to make a statement that it was going to be the burial of their nemesis.
It just took them one game longer to make good on it.