Playoffs 2017: East Semifinals -- Celtics (1) vs. Wizards (4)

Boston Celtics look to shake away bad starts in series against Washington Wizards

Wizards have outscored the Celtics in the first quarter by 49 points during first three games

Lang Whitaker

A strange thing happened to the Boston Celtics on their way to a 2-1 lead over the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals: They forgot how to play early in games.

This isn’t suggesting some Space Jam/Nerdlucks situation, where the Celtics come out completely discombobulated game after game. (Although Celtics president Danny Ainge does have experience in this specific scenario.) While this isn’t as severe as that, for the Celtics it is most certainly concerning.

Including their three postseason matchups, the Celtics and Wizards have played seven times this season. In those seven games, the Wizards have outscored the Celtics in the first quarter by a combined total of 249-168. In the postseason alone, the Wizards have outscored Boston in the first quarter, 119-70.

Despite going into the second quarter of those three playoff games trailing by an average margin of 16 points, the Celtics have managed to mount impressive comebacks to win two of the three games, outscoring the Wizards 99-73 in the final three quarters of Game 1, and 100-77 in the final third and overtime of Game 2.

How to explain Boston’s proclivity to slow starts against the Wizards? At Celtics practice at Georgetown on Saturday, Celtics coach Brad Stevens couldn’t single out an answer.

“I mean, I don’t think it’s as easy as saying one or two things,” said Stevens. “[In Game 3] they were terrific defensively, forcing turnovers, getting out and running. They’ve rebounded almost fifty percent of their shots in the first quarter against us. So… tremendous, they’ve really been great.”

Of course, if it was as simple as making one adjustment, Stevens and Celtics would fix what ails them and stop digging these holes from which they must spend the next few quarters climbing out. Stevens has tried shuffling his starters, swapping Gerald Green and Amir Johnson, to not much effect. Stevens allowed he’s considering making another change in the starting five for Game 4 on Sunday (6:30 pm EST, TNT). “With three days between games, there’s a lot of time to think, unfortunately,” Stevens said with a chuckle.

While Boston can make changes, nothing will change the fact that Washington’s starting five of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat is playing terrific basketball together. In nine postseason games, Washington’s starters have outscored their opponents by 78 points, by far the best total plus/minus number of any five-man lineup in the playoffs.

“I just think they’re a really good, talented group,” said Stevens. “Whether it’s the first quarter or last quarter, whatever, it’s a group that has a lot of options. They tried to post us with a variety of guys, and then Gortat, you know, Gortat’s a guy with his ability to play in the seams as a passer, but also roll to the rim or seal you up the lane and get lobs to the rim, makes a lot of great plays for them. Very versatile, deep offensive lineup. And I thought defensively the other night they were great.”

The 89 points Boston scored in Game 3 was their worst offensive showing of the season against Washington. And after Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas lit up the Wizards for 53 points in the overtime Game 2 win, Washington used a series of double- and triple-teams to hold Thomas to 13 points on eight field goal attempts in their Game 3 victory. Thomas had just two field goal attempts in the first quarter, as Washington raced out to a 39-17 lead.

“I just gotta make the same reads,” Thomas said. “I gotta be a little more aggressive to start the games, and don’t really worry too much if they double or triple team me. I just gotta play my game and do what I do to help my teammates be successful. If we get defensive stops and get out in transition, that will be a lot easier than playing them in the halfcourt.”

“Obviously, they put a lot of attention on Isaiah as every team we play has,” said Stevens, “but the thing that I saw was that they did it really hard. They were playing exceptionally hard, and that’s the deal: It’s not how many guys, it’s how hard those guys are playing. So, that’s a credit to them. But Isaiah’s played against doubles and triples and all that stuff all year, and we just all have to be better. That’s everybody on the roster, on the bench, on the coaching staff, we all have to do a better job in those moments. But again, credit Washington, they played really well and they played really hard. Much harder than we did.”

Time heals many, if not all, wounds, and after playing five playoff games in nine days, including three games in five days against Washington, the Celtics took Friday off to rest and regroup. “We needed one of those days,” said Thomas, who aside from playing basketball has made a few cross-country trips to Seattle the last few weeks to be with his family following the death of his sister, and has spent extensive time in the dentist’s chair after having a tooth knocked out against Chicago in Round 1.

But Thomas vows his time with the dentist is done—“They ain’t touching my mouth no more.”—and the Celtics say they’re using the extra time off to put a renewed focus on getting off to a good start in Game 4.

“I think we’ve got to be in attack mode,” said Thomas. “They were the attacker last game on both ends of the floor. I feel like if we’re the team that attacks and hits first we’ll be alright. Especially in those first quarters.”

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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