WASHINGTON -- As far as the Boston Celtics were concerned, it was a first half they could probably live with. After getting blown out in the first quarters of the first three games of their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Washington Wizards by an aggregate score of 119-70, the Celtics rededicated themselves to coming out strong. They moved veteran Amir Johnson into the starting lineup in an effort to be, as Boston coach Brad Stevens said a day earlier, “the best version of ourselves.”
And for the first 12 minutes of Game 4, the Celtics established themselves on both ends of the court. Behind a red-hot start from star guard Isaiah Thomas, who hit all three of his 3-point attempts, Boston led 24-20 after the first quarter. By halftime, the game was tied at 48.
At the half, the Wizards went into their locker room and watched some video clips of the first half. “We were making a lot of mistakes and that’s the way they were scoring,” said Washington forward Markieff Morris. The Wizards hoped to straighten out those defensive errors in the second half.
Did they ever.
After the Celtics scored the first five points of the third quarter, the Wizards ripped off 26 unanswered points. There were steals and rebounds which led to dunks and fast breaks and 3-pointers. By the time the dust settled, the Wizards were sitting on a 73-55 lead, which proved insurmountable. Washington went on to win Game 4, 121-102, evening the series at two wins apiece as both teams will head to Boston for Game 5 on Wednesday (8 ET, TNT).
“We played inspired basketball for each other,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks of that third quarter spurt. “We talked about that many times. It’s about playing for each other, and we’ve been doing that all year. It was probably our best stretch of basketball.”
Asked to confirm Brooks’ assessment of that stretch, the Wizards’ backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal agreed.
“It was all our defense, that’s all it was,” said Beal. “We realized at halftime we wasn’t defending the way we were capable of. It was still a tied game and we just came out in the third quarter with a better mindset that everything was going to stem from the defensive end.”
The Wizards’ 26-0 run was a seven minute vicious cycle: The Celtics would turn it over, and the Wizards would capitalize on the other end. It felt like the Wizards were hammering away and hammering away, and with the Verizon Center crowd at full throat and each basket feeling more and more like an inevitability, eventually everything fell apart for the Celtics.
“One of the things is, if you turn the ball over against these guys you prefer to drop kick it into the stands so that at least you can set your defense,” said Stevens. “Their attack in transition killed us. In each of these last two games, I think that our offense and our turnovers in that run separated the game -- last game it was in the first quarter, today it was in the third quarter. They made us pay for it.”
If anything, that Wizards run reinforced the importance of their point guard, Wall. After getting off to a 0-for-9 start from the floor, Wall eventually found his groove, finishing Game 4 with 27 points, 12 assists, five steals and three rebounds. Wall has now scored at least 20 points and recorded seven assists in each of Washington’s ten playoff games. “He’s just as good as it gets in transition,” said Stevens.
“I know I have to be aggressive -- offensively and defensively,” said Wall. “I was getting good looks, I was just missing easy shots and layups kept hitting the rim and not slowing down. My teammates let me keep being aggressive. Just the way we got stops, that kind of got me into a momentum and a rhythm of seeing the ball go into the basket.”
Meanwhile, Thomas was looking to rebound from an uncharacteristic 13-point performance in Game 3. After scoring 53 in Boston’s overtime Game 2 win, the Wizards dedicated themselves to getting the ball out of Thomas’ hands in Game 3. Thomas vowed to be aggressive in Game 4, and while he scored 17 points in the first half, he added just two in the second half (which went along with five turnovers).
“Especially in that third quarter, I may have hit the ground five or six times, and I’m not the one who likes hitting the ground,” said Thomas. “I’m not saying that’s the reason why we lost -- they went on a 26-0 run, we can’t have that happen on the road. But I cannot be held on and grabbed every pin down, every screen, and I don’t even shoot one free throw ... they also paid a lot more attention to me. They didn’t allow me to get any open looks after the first, I guess, little bit of the second quarter.”
With tonight’s win, the Wizards now move to 21-5 at home since January 1, including a 4-0 mark in the playoffs. But with the series shipping up to Boston, the Wizards have to figure out some way to change their there. The Wizards are 0-4 in Boston this season, including losses in Games 1 and 2 of this series.
Still, the Wizards held double-digit leads in each of those playoff games in Boston, and after showing what their own best selves can look like at home in Games 3 and 4, Washington will have to win a game in Boston at some point if they want to survive and advance.
“I feel like we’re in control,” said Wall. “We have the momentum from coming home and winning our two games. We feel like we can win there -- we know we can. We just have to better care of those leads we get and play smart basketball down the stretch. When you’re on the road, you can’t have those turnovers. You have to take care of the ball and keep their guys out of transition and from getting wide-open threes. We like our chances.”
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