– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
WASHINGTON — The Washington Wizards had enough. No more blown leads. No more Isaiah Thomas playing their defense like a fiddle all game long. No more talk about their bench being outplayed by their opponent, possibly the deciding factor between these two evenly-matched squads. No more of the calls they thought they were not getting from the officials while at TD Garden.
Wizards forward Kelly Oubre Jr. literally had enough of all of that, and, epitomizing all of the frustration his team was feeling after the losses in those first two games, took matters into his own hands.
Washington cruised to a 116-89 victory over the Celtics to cut their Eastern Conference series deficit to two games to one, but the road on easy street took a detour into a dark alley early in the second quarter, when Oubre Jr. was ejected for shoving down Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk after the latter was called for an illegal screen on the right wing. While the teams had to be separated and the officials decided the fate of Oubre, there seemed to be a collective thought of justice being done among the spectators at the Verizon Center. The physicality, which has been a hallmark when these two adversaries have squared off the past two seasons – from Bradley Beal’s broken nose suffered at the hands of Marcus Smart in January of 2016 to the tête-à-tête between John Wall and Jae Crowder this past January – had once again come to a head.
It was bound to happen, especially with that history these teams have when they share a 94 x 50 hardwood court.
“I’ve been talking about it all series. We just want to make sure that we just play basketball, and I thought that’s what we’ve been trying to do,” said head coach Scott Brooks in the postgame press conference in response to the physical nature to the game. “Our job is to play, my job is to coach and the referees’ job is to call the game, and that’s all I have to say. When you play in the playoffs and you’re fighting for something special, you’re going to play with passion, and I have no complaints on either team if they’re playing with passion and within the rules.”
Clearly, Oubre’s shove was not within the rules, but the frustration that he let out was representative of the team’s frustration after the first two games, and they took it out – within the rules – on the Celtics, keying on not letting Isaiah Thomas have his way. Seeing almost two Wizards players every time he touched the ball, the guard scored only 13 points tonight, managing only to get off eight shot attempts.
“I think we just did a great job of just trying to deny [Thomas] as much as possible and keep two guys on him,” said Wizards guard John Wall, who scored 24 points and had eight assists in the contest. “I don’t think he was as aggressive as he was the past two games – usually when the game gets close in the fourth quarter, he gets real aggressive. The game was kind of out of reach then and they had reserves in and he didn’t have an opportunity to have a big scoring night.”
Boston head coach Brad Stevens gave credit to the Wizards’ adjustments in making sure Thomas did not have the game he is accustomed to having against Washington.
“I don’t think it was as much about Isaiah as it was the whole team,” said Stevens. “[Washington] was really into the passing lanes, they were really into the ball and they were really aggressive. They obviously set the tone for how the game was going to be played and dominated the game. They played great.”
The one thing the Wizards did want to carry over from the two contests in Boston was the fast starts, and they executed that once more, this time in front of their home fans. Breaking open a tie game early, Washington went on a 22-0 run to open up a 34-12 lead late in the first quarter. Unlike Game 1, when a 16-0 start was erased by the third quarter and, unlike Game 2, when a 14-point first-quarter lead evaporated in less than 12 minutes, Washington pushed hard to extend the lead. Wall, who usually gets a rest to begin the second quarter, stayed on the court as Brooks tried to balance having as much firepower on the court and giving those players a few minutes of rest. The 22-point margin the Wizards opened up was the margin at the end of the first quarter, and the lead never went below 19 points the rest of the way as Washington’s biggest lead ballooned to 30.
“I hope we’re not going to jinx it and say that today we played together the first half and the second half,” said Wizards center Marcin Gortat, who recorded his third consecutive double-double in this series with 13 points and 16 rebounds. The game before we showed up in the first half, and the second half we didn’t have the same energy we had the first two games. We just played together. We played and we executed the game plan and we played hard and we didn’t stop.”
The decisive 22-0 first-quarter run was keyed by one of Washington’s substitutes, Bojan Bogdanovic, who hit three three-pointers and had an assist after he checked in with 4:36 remaining in the period. Bogdanovic was scoreless in only 8:22 of playing time in Game 2, when the Celtics reserves outscored Washington’s 33-22.
“I thought I made a smart move for a change, I gave him some more minutes,” said Brooks. “I guess I should have gone on Twitter a few games ago, right? He’s a good player. I made a mistake, I only played him eight minutes. The way the game was going, we were up, things were going good and we had a chance to win the game. He’s been in a lot of big games, he’s made a lot of big shots and he’s done that for us this year.”
“Going into this game, I was focused on making sure that we were going to get him good looks and that he was going to get early opportunities,” Brooks continued.
With Washington picking up such a lopsided victory, one would figure that Boston will come out fighting – figuratively and maybe literally – for Sunday. When (and not if) Sunday’s game gets physical and maybe overly physical, will it once again signal how much these teams really don’t care for each other, or just how badly each team wants to win this series?
“It’s just competitive, man, that’s what I always bring it back to,” said Wizards guard Bradley Beal. “I don’t think anyone is dirty out here. I don’t think anyone is trying to make it a fistfight or anything like that. We are two competitive teams fighting our tails off for our team and protecting our teammates. That’s all it is.
We are similar in a lot of ways.”
On the other side, Thomas, for the most part, agrees with Beal’s assessment, but did throw this in at the end of his time during the press conference: “We don’t like them and they don’t like us. That’s just what it is.”
Let the bad blood continue to boil over on Sunday.