NBA Playoffs Preview: Celtics vs. Wizards
The Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards hate each other. Dating back to last season, the meetings between the two clubs have been filled with flagrant fouls, dustups, trash talking, and near brawls. The Wizards even dressed up in all-black garb before what they dubbed as a 'funeral' game.
The rivalry between the two clubs may be new-ish, but it doesn't make it any less fierce.
And now, after a pair of hard-fought first-round wins, the two foes face a quick turnaround as they will have to face off in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals less than 40 hours after finishing off their first-round opponents.
Washington, on the other hand, knocked off the Atlanta Hawks, who came into the series with the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA regular season. Despite that, the Wizards' offense flexed its muscle, scoring 110.3 points per game in their four victories.
In the regular season, the Celtics finished as the 1 seed in the East but were only four games better than the Wizards, who ended up as the 4 seed. The two teams both finished in the top 10 of our power rankings, separated by two spots.
In a series that should be tight and hotly-contested, who holds the edge? Let's find out.
Boston Celtics (1)
Championship Odds: 5.4%
Washington Wizards (4)
Championship Odds: 2.4%
Regular Season Series - Celtics 2, Wizards 2
The four games in the regular season series between these two Eastern Conference powers may seem even, with both teams winning on their own floor, but the Wizards outscored the Celtics by an average of 5.8 points per game thanks to a pair of blowout wins.
In the first meeting, a 118-93 Washington win, the Wizards bulldozed their way to a 26-point lead after just one quarter of play. They dominated a shorthanded Celtics squad (who was missing Al Horford and Jae Crowder) the entire night as Otto Porter went berzerk, scoring a career-high 34 points with 14 rebounds. The game also saw John Wall get ejected late in the fourth quarter after a takedown of Marcus Smart which was just the start of the drama between the two teams this season.
On January 11, the Celtics came out ahead 117-108 in a physical matchup that saw five technicals and repeated skirmishes. Isaiah Thomas scored a game-high 38 points with 5 three-pointers and was helped out by Crowder, who dropped 20 points with 4 threes of his own. After the game, Crowder got into an altercation with Wall (who scored a season-low nine points) in which the Wizards' point guard took a swipe at the C's small forward, nearly causing a melee.
After the game, the Wizards circled the next meeting on the calendar with Bradley Beal asking his teammates to all wear black in what he and Wall dubbed the 'funeral' game.
The Wizards got the upper hand in the grudge match on January 24 as they dominated offensively, shooting 57.1% from the field in a 123-108 home victory. Wall and Beal combined for 58 points on 23-of-38 shooting (60.5%).
For the fourth and final meeting, the home team came out on top again with the C's winning by eight in a game that saw more trash talking, more technicals, and even a police presence outside of the locker rooms to keep the peace. While all five of the Celtics starters owned a plus/minus of at least plus-10, Markieff Morris, Wall, and Beal were all minus-17 or worse.
How the Celtics Can Win
During the regular season, the Celtics had one of the better offenses in the league, averaging 108.0 points per game with a 108.6 offensive rating, both top-eight marks in the NBA.
Their phenomenal floor spacing and ball movement created quite a few open looks. The C's ended up with nearly 20% of their shots coming while being wide open -- which is defined as when the closest defender is at least 6 feet away from the shooter. That helped them rank second in the league with a 55.5% field goal percentage on two-point shots.
Sharing the ball and finding the open man was a common theme as they had the fourth-most assists per game (25.3) and the second-best assist percentage (65.3%) in the league. Boston's ability to move the ball and find the open man may cause problems for a Wizards defense that struggled most of the season. Washington ended up ranked 20th in defensive rating (106.9), 21st in points allowed (107.4), and 24th in field goal percentage allowed (46.6%).
Celtics' Player to Watch - Jae Crowder
The Celtics are IT2's team -- no question about that. However, the player that embodies the Brad Stevens' system and mentality the most is Crowder, a player who has a staggering impact on Boston's performance.
In the regular season, when the small forward was on the court, Boston was 11.5 points better than when he was on the bench, which was the best mark on the team. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Celtics own an 115.5 offensive rating with Crowder as compared to a 106.2 mark without him. The defense was better, as well, giving up 2.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with Crowder roaming the hardwood.
Against the Wizards, the small forward matches up with Otto Porter. In the first meeting of the year, a loss, Porter scored 34 points with Crowder sidelined with an injury. In the three subsequent meetings, Porter scored 34 points combined thanks to the rabid defense of the Celtics' small forward. Crowder was able to have his way with Porter on both ends of the floor in the regular season, scoring 17.7 points per game while posting a 153 offensive rating and a 79.1% true shooting percentage.
How the Wizards Can Win
Washington finished the season as the third-best shooting team with a 47.5% field goal percentage. A big part of that was they way they were able to get out in transition and get easy buckets.
Not only did Washington score 17.7 points per game off turnovers (third-most in the NBA), the Wizards were behind only the Utah Jazz, and Golden State Warriors with 1.19 points per possession on transition plays. They force an excessive number of turnovers, the third-most in the regular season (15.4) and the most in the playoffs (16.0). If they can continue to do so against the usually careful Celtics, the Wizards could run away with the series.
In the Wizards' two wins versus the Celtics this year, they averaged 19.0 fastbreak points while getting just 10.0 fastbreak points per game in the two losses. The Celtics have tough on-ball defenders in Avery Bradley, Smart, and Crowder. Washington needs to play to its strengths and get Boston out of its half-court defense.
Wizards Player to Watch - John Wall
The 2017 postseason seems like a coming out party for the former top overall pick. While Wall has been a four-time All-Star, he is not usually mentioned with the likes of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, or Kawhi Leonard (and so on). Maybe now is his time to join the ranks of the elite.
During the six games against Atlanta, Wall was a man on a mission. He averaged 29.5 points, 10.3 assists and shot 52.5% from the field. He dominated in the series clincher, scoring 42 points in Game 6. If the Wizards are going to take out the top seed in the East, they will need Optimus Dime to continue to wreak havoc, which he tends to have trouble doing against Boston.
In the 23 games he has played against Boston in his career, Wall is shooting just 40.4% and 16.7% from three. This season, the C's continued to have his number as he scored just 17.8 points per game. In the two losses, Wall was abysmal, recording just 12.5 points per contest while sinking only 8 of the 31 shots he attempted (25.8%).
If Wall can continue his top-notch play from the first round and replicate the performance he had in the 'funeral game' (he scored 27 points with 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in that one), the Celtics will be in trouble.
The Celtics seem to have the advantage. They are the better overall team (3.1 net rating, compared to 1.6 for Washington) and have homecourt advantage (Washington was 19-22 on the road this season).
However, with the way Wall is playing at the moment, the Wizards have by far the best player in the series. In the postseason, having the best player -- someone who can take over games -- usually looms large.
According to our algorithms: Celtics will win the series 60.5% of the time.
My final prediction: Wizards in 7.