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

Series preview: A backcourt battle will be at center of Boston Celtics-Washington Wizards matchup

Critical piece to series is which team will get consistent help from supporting actors

Neither the Celtics nor Wizards had an easy trip through the first round of the NBA playoffs, as both teams needed six games to advance. The Celtics had to deal with the tragic death of the sister of point guard Isaiah Thomas just before the playoffs. After losing the first two games against the Chicago Bulls, Boston bounced back to win four straight and take the series. The Wizards jumped out to a 2-0 lead against the Atlanta Hawks, then lost two in Atlanta before winning the final two games. Now a Washington and Boston series that turned contentious in the regular season—as each home team won two games—gets a postseason rematch.

3 quick questions and answers

1. Who will win the battle of the backcourts? Boston’s backcourt of Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley provides both incredible offense (Thomas) and lockdown defense (Bradley). In four games this season against the Wizards, Thomas averaged 27.8 points per game, while Washington’s dynamic guard duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal combined to average 39.8 ppg against the Celtics. Wall and Beal enter this series red-hot, combining for 73 points in Game 6 against Atlanta.

2. Can the Celtics control the boards? The Celtics signed free agent big man Al Horford over the summer, and while Horford helped the Celtics to the best record in the Eastern Conference, rebounding was a consistent problem for the C’s, who were outrebounded by an average of nearly five boards per game during the regular season against Washington. If he can consistently clean the glass, Wizards center Marcin Gortat could make a major impact on this series.

3. Who else will come to play? While both teams rely on their backcourts, they’ll need to get scoring from other places as well. Horford (18 ppg) and Jae Crowder (17.7 ppg) came up big in the regular season against the Wizards, while Washington saw big performances from Otto Porter (17.0 ppg) and Markieff Morris (13.0 ppg and 7.5 rpg) against Boston.

The Number to Know

20.7 — The Wizards averaged 20.7 fast break points against Atlanta, most in the first round. In the regular season, they totaled 38 fast break points in their two wins over Boston and just 20 in their two losses. Good defense starts in transition, especially against John Wall and the Wizards. In the first round, they had an effective field goal percentage of 61 percent in the first six seconds of the shot clock and just 49 percent thereafter. Prevent those early shots and your defense is in good shape. In the regular season, the Celtics allowed their opponents to get 14.6 percent of their shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock, the ninth highest rate in the league. In the first round though, they held the Bulls to just 9.8 fast break points per game, 4.0 fewer than they averaged in the regular season. Of course, keeping the Wizards from scoring on the break begins with offensive execution and taking care of the ball. Washington’s 9.2 steals per game were also the highest mark in the first round.

Making the pick

We saw the Wizards wear all black earlier this season before beating the Celtics, and with several physical confrontations, it was clear these teams did not like playing against each other. As good as the Wizards have been this season after getting off to a slow start, the Celtics are the number one seed and hold home court advantage in this series. If the Wiz can contain Thomas game after game, they have a chance. But that’s easier said than done.

Celtics in 7.

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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