BOSTON -- For most of the players on both teams, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals promises to be the biggest game of their basketball lives. And yet the Boston Celtics were trying to emphasize the opportunity -- as opposed to the intimidating expectations they will be facing against the Washington Wizards here Monday night (8 ET, TNT).
“Both teams are like this, right? We all love basketball,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens was saying after a brief practice on Mothers Day. “These are the moments that you live for. This is what guys have always dreamed about. This is what they enjoy, and it should be a bunch of fun.”
And yet it will feel like anything but fun in the queasy moments before both teams take the floor. Bill Russell, who won 11 championships for the Celtics, used to be physically ill before every game like this one. “Man, I don’t believe in pressure,” said Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas, who is averaging 27.2 points and 6.3 assists -- and has never experienced a Game 7. “I work too hard to be scared of any type of pressure.”
The numbers weigh heavily in Boston’s favor. Home teams are 101-26 in NBA seventh games (and 23-3 at this particular stage of the playoffs). The No. 4 Wizards and top-seeded Celtics have met 10 times this year, and the visitors have lost every time.
The Wizards haven’t played a Game 7 since Elvin Hayes, Bob Dandridge and Wes Unseld beat the San Antonio Spurs, 105-100, in the 1979 Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics, on the other hand, are the NBA’s most experienced franchise in Game 7s with a record of 21-8. But these Celtics have little in common with their predecessors. Lone holdover Avery Bradley was a second-year guard recovering from shoulder surgery when Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen lost played -- and lost -- a Game 7 in the Eastern finals at Miami in 2012.
“That’s what it’s all really about – what team really wants to go onto the next round?” said Bradley, who has performed like an All-Star while averaging 28 points and shooting 59.5 percent overall (53.8 percent from the arc) over the last two games. “It’s either go on vacation or leave everything out there on the floor. That’s what I’m going to do. That’s how I’m going to play.”
NBA games are said to be decided in the fourth quarter, but the first minutes of this winner-take-all game will be telling. Will Washington point guard John Wall steady his young team through what promises to be an anxious opening period? Wall is averaging 26.3 points in this round while leading both teams with 10.2 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.8 blocks. He has been the best player of the series, and the Wizards will need him at his best -- productively and emotionally -- to overcome the intimidating environment.
“We worked in the season to get that homecourt advantage and we need it tomorrow,” said Celtics center Al Horford. “Opposing teams, they feel it. The players feel it for sure. There’s no question about it. You can talk around it, but when the fans are into it and they’re giving that energy, the other team feels it.”
Horford played in three Game 7s with Atlanta, including one in the opening round at Boston in 2008, which the Celtics won by 34 points on their way to the championship. Horford remembers going 3 of 12 for eight points as a rookie that day.
“It was a beatdown from the beginning,” he said. “We did a lot to push it to seven games against that team. By that point, what hit us was something different. Because the energy in the Garden was unbelievable. It just kept getting poured on. They just stayed at it and they beat us down.”
There are several reasons to believe that the Wizards may survive the historical and recent trends of homecourt advantage. Facing elimination in Game 6 on Friday, they overcame a five-point deficit in the final 1:25, thanks to huge 3-pointers from Bradley Beal and Wall. Beal is hitting just 26.7 percent of his 3-pointers for the series, and in three games here he has averaged 19 points while shooting 37.7 percent from the floor. On Friday, however, Beal led all scorers with 33 points (along with five assists) when his team needed him most -- a cold-blooded performance that bodes well for Game 7.
The Wizards upped the pressure on Thomas at the end of Game 6 for a turnover and a blocked 3-pointer. Will they apply similar effort defensively throughout the game Monday? Even more important will be their command of the glass. If both teams are clanging up shots under the typical Game 7 pressure, then second-chance opportunities could be the difference-maker. The Wizards have outrebounded Boston by almost 6 boards per game (and on the offensive glass by 3.3 per game), while Marcin Gortat (11.7 rebounds) and Otto Porter (7.8) have generated more rebounds than any Celtic.
With the exception of Horford and Gortat, all of the key players – including Wall and Thomas - have yet to reach their peak. This Game 7 will reveal who they are and where they stand in their careers. But Stevens was encouraging them to celebrate the moment.
“All of these guys - when they were playing in college – they played Game 7s every time they took the court in March,” Stevens said. “That’s what they’ve done their whole lives. When it is how you play tomorrow that determines if you play Tuesday, I can’t think of anything more fun.”
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