BOSTON -- The Celtics have been exceeding expectations for three years running. Can they raise their level to win two more games?
"I felt like we were lucky to be up 2-0 when we left Boston, and now as poorly as we have played in the last two we are still 2-2,’’ said Boston coach Brad Stevens as he looked ahead to Game 5 here Wednesday against the surging Washington Wizards. "As I told our guys, 'You’ve got a best two-out-of-three to go to the Eastern Conference finals.’ Our focus has to be on the first possession on Wednesday.’’
He was urging his young players to learn from their last two blowout losses in Washington, their 26-rebound deficit in Games 3 and 4, and the cumulative plus-minus impact of +218 points by the Wizards starters throughout this series. The Wizards arrive on a wave of phenomenal 22-0 and 26-0 runs that prevented Boston All-Star Isaiah Thomas from launching one of his signature comebacks.
"I’ve never seen runs like that before,’’ said Thomas, and he sounded as if he didn’t expect to see them again. "All they did was take care of their business at home just like we did.’’
Not quite. The Wizards dominated their home court to a degree befitting their advantages. They’ve been rebuilding since 2008-09 and missed the playoffs for five straight seasons before their trio of high draft picks -- John Wall (No. 1 in 2010), Bradley Beal (No. 3 in 2012) and Otto Porter (No. 3 in ‘13) -- led them to the postseason in 2014. They’re now seeking their fourth series victory in four years.
Wall is only 26, but after seven seasons he may be on the verge of casting himself as the second-best player in the East behind LeBron James. He is averaging 27.8 points, 12.3 assists, 3.0 steals and 1.8 blocks in this Eastern semifinal. The Celtics are surely game-planning for the 6-foot-4 point guard as if he were a smaller version of LeBron, based on their priority of getting back faster than Wall can push the ball in transition.
"The best way to guard him is as a team. One player can’t stop him. It has to be an entire team building a wall"
"The best way to guard him is as a team,’’ said Celtics guard and leading defender Avery Bradley, who pronounced himself adequately recovered from the dueling hip pointers he suffered in Games 3 and 4. "One player can’t stop him. It has to be an entire team building a wall.’’ He laughed and blamed the pun on Stevens.
Stevens doesn’t have a variety of personnel options to counteract Wall, mainly because Boston isn’t as far along in its rebuilding as Washington. Celtics president Danny Ainge began dismantling his elderly roster in 2013. Along the way Stevens has turned each corner faster than anticipated – reaching the last three postseasons while earning the No. 1 seed this year – which has masked the relative immaturity of Boston’s long-term mission to build a title contender.
There will be much complaining in TD Garden and on talk radio if the Celtics lose Game 5, which would probably signal the end to their season. In the bigger picture, however, their premature success has camouflaged many of the valuable assets that Ainge has yet to utilize – the maximum salary space that can be managed this summer, the wealth of young players on rookie contracts that can be packaged into a trade, and the two picks from the Nets that could be No. 1 overall this June as well as next year. In that sense, the Celtics are currently playing with house money.
The strength of the Celtics’ position – they need only hold serve at home to advance – belies the lopsided results from Washington, and Thomas has remained intent on focusing on the positives. Since being picked up on the cheap by Ainge at the 2015 trade deadline, Thomas has emerged as Boston’s most prolific scorer since Larry Bird because he has refused to accept what is obvious to everyone else – whether it has been overcoming his size at 5-foot-9, or continuing to lead the Celtics despite the shocking death of his younger sister in a car accident on the eve of the playoffs.
His failure to dominate in Washington, where he combined for 32 points (fewer than he had scored in either of the games in Boston), has led to speculation that Thomas has been exhausted by the emotional turmoil of his postseason. But he appeared resolute after practice on Tuesday.
"We’ve got to remain confident in ourselves – in what we did to get us to this point,’’ Thomas said. "I’ve got to put my foot on the gas and I can’t take it off. I’ve got to keep going, and I know if I do, my teammates will follow.’’
It was true, Bradley said, that the young Celtics had been discouraged at times by their poor shooting over the last two games. "That could go back to immaturity a little bit, and just losing control as a group,’’ Bradley said. "I think the coaches, the players -- all of us as a whole -- we definitely have to do a better job of keeping our composure and making sure that we are focused. Even if we are down in the game like that, all you can do is play hard at the end of the day. And so we have to do that as a unit.’’
That’s what they’ve done for most of this year, and for the two years before. That is why this young team has progressed ahead of schedule. But the question facing them in Game 5 may be beyond them: Is this simply John Wall’s time?
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