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Celtics still bring out the best in the Wizards, despite diminished rivalry

Celtics still bring out the best in the Wizards, despite diminished rivalry

Through some of their most frustrating times of the past two seasons, every once in a while a version of the Wizards will show up on a given night that teases their potential. They will win a game that feels at the time like a turning point and an example of what they are capable of when they put it all together.

That version of the Wizards seems to show up more often to play the Boston Celtics than maybe anyone else. Though Boston has in some ways sped off into the distance, leaving their once-contentious and close rivalry behind, the Wizards still manage to give them their best shot, no matter the personnel. 

Washington has won three of the past four regular season meetings between the teams, all since their memorable playoff series in 2017. The one win for the Celtics required overtime and John Wall was out with an injury.

The Wizards beat Boston last year with Wall and without him. One of their wins with him, on Christmas Day 2017 in Boston, was arguably their most impressive victory since the beginning of last season.

Last year, the Wizards won their second meeting in Boston as well. Bradley Beal dropped 34 points in double overtime game while Wall was sidelined with a knee injury.

The Wizards have remained competitive in the head-to-head battles with the Celtics, though Boston has been doing much better in the big picture. They were one win away from a berth in the NBA Finals this past spring, while the Wizards were at home, having lost in the first round as an eighth seed. 

Since the 2017 playoff series, the Celtics have overhauled their roster to get even better. They brought in Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum, among others. The Wizards have mostly kept their core intact with their biggest change, the addition of Dwight Howard, currently having zero impact due to injury.

Perhaps most noteworthy about the Wizards-Celtics meetings the past two seasons is how the animosity between them has largely been lost. 

The 2016-17 season saw them butt heads as bitter foes. With some of it stemming from previous history, we saw clashes with Wall and Jae Crowder, Beal and Marcus Smart, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kelly Olynyk, Brandon Jennings and Terry Rozier, Ian Mahinmi and Jonas Jerebko and Markieff Morris and Al Horford. There was even a funeral game.

But many of those players have since moved on to other teams. and any spat with Morris is mitigated by the fact his twin brother is now wearing Celtics green. There is also Beal's hometown connection to Tatum. These teams probably couldn't hate each other even if they tried.

Since 2016-17, the Celtics retooled their roster to battle LeBron James, and now the Raptors, Sixers and Warriors. The Wizards, meanwhile, have had more pressing problems than one, direct rival.

Still, anytime these teams face off, it carries some significance. The best shot of Wall's career came against Boston. That 2017 series was the closest the Wizards have been to the conference finals since the 1970s. And each time they play in the regular season, it bears watching, knowing the history between them.

For two seasons the Wizards have been searching for the best version of themselves. Though that has been elusive, they usually seem to find it, if only temporarily, against the Celtics.

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NBA Week at a Glance: Road ahead gets tougher for Wizards

NBA Week at a Glance: Road ahead gets tougher for Wizards

Last week was a frustrating one for Wizards fans. Just when it seemed the team was building momentum for a push at claiming the No. 8 seed, it predictably laid two duds with losses to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers and injury-riddled Chicago Bulls.

The good news is the Wizards fell back by just half a game in the conference standings. The bad news is the schedule gets much more difficult. To gain ground, the Wizards needed those wins over bad teams. Now, they’ll need to beat good teams and overcome two-time MVP Stephen Curry’s potential return to the court to keep up.

Here’s what we’re looking forward to this week from the Wizards and other teams around the Association.

Wizards (20-35) 

Standings: 9th in Eastern Conference (3.5 GB Orlando Magic)

Schedule 

  • Monday vs. Bucks (48-8), 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington
  • Wednesday vs. Nets (26-29), 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington
  • Friday at Jazz (36-20), 9 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington
  • Sunday at Warriors (12-45), 8:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington

Washington begins the week on the second night of a back-to-back against the best team in the NBA. The Wizards are 12 ½-point underdogs against the Milwaukee Bucks for a reason, as this is a game absolutely no one expects them to win. It also happens to be a preview of the Wizards’ first-round playoff matchup if they’re able to squeak into the eighth seed.

Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out with a shoulder injury the last time these teams played, but Khris Middleton picked up the slack with a career-high 51 points in a 20-point win. Bradley Beal had one of his many 40-point performances of the season that night but like last Sunday’s loss to the Bulls, it wasn’t enough. The Wizards are now 1-7 when he scores 40 this year.

Next, the Wizards host a Brooklyn Nets team a lot closer in the standings (No. 7 -- 6.5 games ahead of Wizards) but also playing really well. The Nets are 7-3 in their last 10 despite the absence of Kyrie Irving who is out the rest of the season with his own shoulder issue. The good news for the Wizards is they beat this team in their last matchup, which also happened to be the last time Irving played.

The Wizards head West on Friday to play the Utah Jazz, who are presently dealing with their own inconsistencies. Utah began the month with a five-game losing streak followed by a four-game winning streak, and it is now coming off of two straight losses. Still one of the NBA’s better teams, led by All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert with a great supporting cast, expect the Jazz to give the Wizards everything they can handle.

Finally, the Wizards close the week against the Golden State Warriors in what could be Stephen Curry’s first game since breaking his hand in October. Over the weekend, Curry said he’s targeting a March 1 return. The Warriors might have the worst record in the NBA, but they’re obviously a different team with one of the league’s best players back in the lineup. Also, Beal can break Walt Bellamy's team record of 17 straight games with at least 25 points if he keeps his current streak of 14 going into this game.

NBA

Monday: Grizzlies at Clippers, 10:30 p.m. on NBA TV

Ja Morant’s Grizzlies have struggled of late and are at risk of falling below .500 for the first time since January. Playing a team with two of the league’s best players -- Kawhi Leonard and Paul George -- may not be the remedy, but then again the Clippers have lost three straight. Expect two teams desperate for a win to put on a fun battle.

Tuesday: Bucks at Raptors, 7:30 p.m. on TNT

The storylines are endless here: The Eastern Conference’s top two seeds, a potential Eastern Conference Finals preview, a rematch of last year’s ECF -- minus Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmp vs. Pascal Siakam. What more do you need to know?

Wednesday: Celtics at Jazz, 10:30 p.m. on ESPN

It’ll be the second night of a back-to-back in the middle of a road swing for the Celtics, but if they want people to believe they’re one of the league’s elites, this is a chance to add to the resume. Also, Jayson Tatum has been incredible lately and alone is worth tuning in.

Thursday: Trail Blazers at Pacers, 8 p.m. on TNT

The Trail Blazers, like the Wizards, can’t seem to close the small gap between them and the 8th seed in their conference. Still, they’re just three games back of the Grizzlies and by Thursday night, Damian Lillard could be back in the lineup. Lillard only expected to miss three or four games after the All-Star Break and this game would be the fourth. Indiana’s Victor Oladipo is dealing with a back injury, but early indications are it won’t be hampering him still by the time this game rolls around.

Friday: Thunder at Bucks, 8 p.m. on ESPN

Did you know the Thunder are in sixth place in the Western Conference? What was supposed to be a rebuild year after trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook has turned into a sneaky good team. This will be OKC's second game against the league’s best team this season. Chris Paul's squad lost by just two the first time around.

Saturday: Rockets at Celtics, 8:30 p.m. on ABC

One week after the Celtics dueled with the rival Lakers on national television, they get another one of the West’s bests. This time it’s the Rockets and the league’s best scorer James Harden (35.2 points per game), as two of the league’s best offenses clash. The Rockets play a uniquely small brand of basketball worth seeing against a Celtics team that usually has to prepare for the size of the East’s best.

Sunday: 76ers at Clippers, 3:30 p.m. on ABC

Besides a loss to the Bucks over the weekend, the 76ers have played well as of late. But of their last three wins, only one came over a team with a winning record. That win was at home against the Clippers on Feb. 11. Now, they travel to Los Angeles to see if they can take that act on the road against a determined LA squad.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

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Real Marquee Matchup: Wizards get glimpse into potential playoff series against Bucks

Real Marquee Matchup: Wizards get glimpse into potential playoff series against Bucks

Even though the Wizards are ninth in the Eastern Conference, therefore just one spot out of the playoff picture, the talk of them making the postseason should probably settle down a bit following their two disappointing losses to the Cavs and Bulls coming out of the All-Star break. But on Monday night, they will get a preview of what life would be like in the first round of the playoffs, if they were to make it.

The Wizards will host the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks, who clinched a playoff spot on Sunday night thanks to the Wizards' loss in Chicago. Yes, it is only Feb. 24 yet the Bucks have punched their ticket, already with 48 wins in only 56 games.

Milwaukee, in fact, is on pace to win 70 games this season. That would rank third all-time only behind the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (73) and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72).

The Wizards just recently got obliterated by the Bucks, 151-131, and their best player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, didn't even play. Barring something unforeseen, he should be available on Monday.

Antetkounmpo appears on his way to a second consecutive MVP award, averaging an absurd 30 points, 13.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals per game. The last two times he has played the Wizards, he has scored 43 points.

First round upsets are always rare in today's NBA with seven-game series, which are long enough to eliminate any real hope for parity. But the scale is tipped even more so in years like this, when the No. 1 seed is shaping up to be a historic juggernaut.

The playoffs, though, are still months away. And really, the Wizards have more pertinent problems to figure out. They need to bounce back from two frustrating losses against teams they should have beaten.

The Bucks offer an opportunity in the sense that an upset win would erase any bad feelings about the last two days. A victory would instantly become the signature win of the Wizards' season.

They have yet to beat anyone of Milwaukee's caliber, but they have pulled off some stunners. This season they have knocked off six teams with winning records including the Nuggets and Celtics, two of the top-five records in the NBA. A win over the Buckw would top them all.

There is also, though, the potential for a rough night for the Wizards. They need to at a minimum put up a better fight against Milwaukee than they did just weeks ago.

They could use some positive momentum now, but also some semblance of hope for a potential playoff series down the road. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

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