BOSTON – It turns out the Washington Wizards did a favor to their enemies by humiliating them for two series-equaling routs in D.C. The Boston Celtics responded by returning to back to basics so effectively and ruthlessly that their 123-101 win in Game 5 was essentially sewed up in the opening quarter.
The No. 1-seeded Celtics seized a 3-2 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal series Wednesday by swallowing up Wizards point guard John Wall defensively, attacking in transition relentlessly and transforming Isaiah Thomas -- for a couple of quarters at least -- into a traditional pass-first point guard.
“The most important stat for us is 33-11 assist-to-turnover,’’ said Boston coach Brad Stevens. “If we only turn it over 11 times, it gives us a better chance to set our defense. We need to share and move the ball the way we did tonight.’’
Their attention to detail had all kinds of unforeseen benefits. Avery Bradley (a career playoff-best 29 points) was recast as an All-Star, Al Horford (a typically efficient 8 of 9 for 19 points) was unusually emotional, and Thomas (18 timely points) emerged as a secondary option.
“We didn’t have the appropriate focus to start out the game,’’ said Washington coach Scott Brooks after watching Boston convert his team’s 13 turnovers into a staggering 23 points. “We gave them so many good opportunities in transition -- you do that and the basket becomes bigger.’’
Having been clobbered by a combined 46 points in the preceding two losses at home -- during which John Wall had looked like a mini-LeBron James, and Thomas (32 points in Games 3 and 4) had played like a lesser version of himself -- the Celtics responded by breaking their biggest problems into little solutions. For two days, they drilled on cutting to the basket with more energy and conviction, on picking up Wall (21 points and four negligible assists) earlier and tighter, on turning solid defense into explosive offense and vice-versa.
By Wednesday night they were ready to atone like a football team busting through the locker room doors.
The Celtics ran out -- literally -- to an instant 31-16 lead thanks to a breathtaking 15-0 advantage in fast-break points in the opening quarter. It was as if the teams had switched personalities since their lost weekend in Washington, where they had been demolished by runs of 22-0 and 26-0. In Game 5 the Wizards understood how that felt.
The primary driver was Bradley, who was limiting Wall to a 1-for-5 opening quarter while attacking ceaselessly at the other end. By halftime Bradley had done the bulk of his damage with 25 points (10 of 13 overall and 4 of 5 from the arc) in fulfillment of a prediction by Thomas, who had texted Bradley that he was going to have a big game.
“I knew that I haven’t been playing to my ability on the offensive end the last two games, and for this team I wanted to bring my all,’’ said Bradley, who had generated 12 points in the two losses. “I wanted to take the open shots that were there and make plays for guys, and that is what I tried to do tonight.”
The Wizards’ plan was to force someone other than 5-foot-9 Thomas to beat them, and Thomas was all for it. The Celtics carried a 67-51 lead at intermission as he transformed into an old-school playmaker (six assists and five points in the opening half) by relaying the ball ahead to teammates in transition, and occasionally even screening for Horford.
“We had to adjust a couple of things because of how much pressure they were putting on us and turning us over,’’ said Stevens. “When we talked after the film session on Monday you could tell (Thomas) had already watched it and was already thinking about the next steps of how to best to manage that kind of attention. And that’s when we’re at our best - when guys are soaring with their strengths and everybody else is looking to help that guy next to him soar with their strengths.”
Their successful ball movement enabled the Celtics to shoot 57.1 percent (including 11 of 23 from the arc) through three quarters, providing them with an impenetrable lead of 93-76 entering the fourth.
“That’s how I got to play,’’ said Thomas. “You got to read what the defense is giving you, and they’re really having two to three guys on me at all times. What I’m trying to do is just give other guys space and also be a good screen setter.’’
Horford, as he has been in many Celtics’ wins this postseason, was precise. But there was something more expressive to this performance, as if for the first time he felt wholly comfortable and confident in Boston. He knocked down his first six shots into the third quarter while adding seven assists, six rebounds and three blocks. In one second-quarter stretch he blocked drives by Wall and Beal, put-back a Thomas drive (followed by uncharacteristic bicep flexing for the crowd), and then forced a traveling turnover from Markieff Morris.
The Wizards shot 38.5 percent, and only 7 of 29 from 3-point range. Wall, who had his worst game of the series, combined with Bradley Beal for 37 points on 36 shots. Wall noted that the Wizards limited Boston to only four transition points after the opening quarter, but by then the result had been cast.
“I really don’t think we relaxed,’’ said Wall. “I think they kind of surprised us.’’
The Wizards were more active in creating deflections to open the third quarter, and Otto Porter (13 points overall) was attacking in a promising way. But they could not put together nearly enough stops. No sooner had Washington cut the deficit to 13 than Thomas began looking for -- and making -- shots.
In nine games this season (including the five in this series), the home team has won every time. The Wizards now must hope that the trend continues Friday for Game 6 in Washington, and that Boston has not discovered a means to end Washington’s season. If this game is any indication, the clues will arrive early.
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