TAI Roundtable: Wizards vs. Celtics — Round 2 Playoff Series Preview | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

TAI Roundtable: Wizards vs. Celtics — Round 2 Playoff Series Preview

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Updated: April 30, 2017

Despite all the last-minute jockeying between Cleveland and Boston for the No. 1 seed, it feels like the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards were always destined to play each other in the 2017 Playoffs.

The bad blood started last season when Jae Crowder got into a verbal altercation with then-head coach Randy Wittman and Marcus Smart gave Bradley Beal a concussion with a shot to the head. The animosity continued in the offseason when Crowder ridiculed the idea that Al Horford would choose an inferior team like the Wizards over the Celtics.

The rivalry, if you want to call it that, continued this season when Crowder poked Wall in the nose after a January 11 Celtics win, and it crescendoed on January 24 with the infamous “Funeral Game” where Wizards players dressed in all-black for a home game and proceeded to dismantle the visiting Celtics. Now, after splitting the regular season series 2-2, Boston and Washington get a chance to settle the score once and for all.

Joining me to answer a few questions about the Wizards-Celtics showdown are fellow TAI writers Kyle Weidie and Rashad Mobley.

Season Series.

Series Prediction.

Key Match-up.

Rubin: Kelly Oubre on Isaiah Thomas. I thought Oubre vs. Dennis Schroder was the key matchup in the Atlanta series because John Wall has difficulty keeping smaller guards out of the paint. While Oubre spent limited time matched up with Schroder in the six-game series, there is a very good chance he spends a lot more time on Thomas in the second round.

Thomas is the head of the snake, on offense and on a team without a reliable second scoring option. Boston’s ability to score stalls when he is pressured on the perimeter and cannot get clean looks at the rim. When defenders can stay in front of Thomas and maintain their verticality at the rim, IT2 tends to force low percentage shots, which lead to fast-break opportunities.

With Ian Mahinmi out (for at least Game 1, but likely longer — who are we kidding?), Washington does not have a rim protector. Therefore, their best shot at stopping Thomas’ drives is with a perimeter defender who is long enough to contest his jumpers and quick enough to stay in front of him. Theoretically, Wall should be that guy. But for whatever reason, he just doesn’t cut it. Instead, Oubre is the one guy on the roster who gleefully accepts the toughest defensive assignments. In Game 5 versus Atlanta, Oubre roared at the crowd as he locked up Paul Millsap and Taurean Prince. In Game 6, he had five steals in the first half.

It’s a small sample size, but Oubre frustrated Thomas on a few possessions at the end of a regular season win against Boston. If Scott Brooks can unleash Oubre for five to ten minute stretches in small ball lineups versus Boston, then Washington may be able to neutralize the Celtics biggest offensive weapon.

Mobley: Isaiah Thomas versus whomever he’s guarding. Thomas plays with heart, he wreaks havoc on offense, and for the second consecutive playoff series he’ll be playing with added emotion due to the untimely death of his sister. But for all of his strong attributes, Thomas is a liability on the defensive end of the floor. His defensive assignments against Washington will vary from John Wall to Bradley Beal to Otto Porter. Once Thomas switches onto a Wizards player, it is imperative that that player immediately exploit it. If it is Wall, he has to get into the lane and put pressure on the remainder of the Celtics defense. If it is Beal, he has to tire Thomas by running from baseline to baseline through a series of picks by Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris. And if Porter has Thomas on him, he has to take Thomas in the post and force the Celtics to double team. As long as Thomas is on the floor, the Wizards must force him into bad match-ups, foul trouble, or into situations where his teammates have to assist him. This will surely throw off the rhythm of Boston’s offense, while simultaneously giving the Wizards some easy baskets (on paper at least).

Weidie: Now, don’t get me wrong, if you are going down the rows and comparing these teams in the coaching column, I think it’s a scratch between Stevens and Scott Brooks. The Wizards aren’t primed to get out-coached like in the Wittman Era. But, you could theoretically say that Stevens knows his team better. Or at least knows how to apply the rough-and tumble ways of his players better on defense.

Side Note: It’s kind of silly to think that Randy Wittman and Jae Crowder exchanging he-said/he-said words in mid-January 2016 was the catalyst of the current rivalry between these two teams. The Wizards lost that night after losing the previous two games that season, which ended with a 4-0 regular season series sweep by Boston. Comments from a coach does not make a rivalry. It started before that when various Wizards (most vocally, Bradley Beal) said they felt “punked” by the Celtics. And when you feel punked you are going to try to do something about it, so that’s really how things started and why they continue to escalate.

Plus other factors: playoff calls tend to favor defensive teams. Which, brings me to Avery Bradley. He played in two games this season versus the Wizards, the first and the last (split), and the teams also split the two games in which he did not play. Who knows how much time Bradley will spend guarding Wall versus Beal, but he has consistently bothered Beal in the past. Advancing to the next round could come down to whether Beal breaks out of that rut or not.

Biggest Difference Between How Washington matches up with Hawks vs. Celtics.

Rubin: Interior size and scoring. For all intents and purposes, Washington played its first round series without Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat. Sure, they were on the court, but their contributions were minimal. That will change in the second round. Boston’s Achilles heel is defensive rebounding. Robin Lopez destroyed them in the first round, often grabbing rebounds while being triple-teamed. Not only will Morris and Gortat face a lot less resistance in the paint, but Wall will also have an easier time penetrating and dishing to his big men.

Mobley: Individual backcourt defense. Wall and Beal — whether it was simultaneously or  separately — were able to run roughshod over Dennis Schroder, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jose Calderon, and Kent Bazemore. Occasionally the Hawks would put together a few possessions of solid team defense, which would force Wall or Beal into bad decisions, but the lion’s share of what the Wizards’ backcourt did was a result of making or missing shots — not Atlanta’s defense.

The Wizards won’t be quite as lucky against the Celtics. Thomas may be a doormat defensively, but Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley possess the ability to beat up and flat-out smother both Wall and Beal. Wall laughed off the ability of Schroder to disrupt his rhythm by picking him up full court, but he cannot as easily dismiss Bradley or Smart’s ability to effectively do the same. They can lean on Wall and Beal, provoke them into cheap or technical fouls, and the entire rhythm of the Wizards offense could be in jeopardy during that time. Washington must mentally be in a space where they power through this physicality, and Scott Brooks must devise a way — whether it be more picks or Otto Porter bringing the ball up occasionally — to free Wall and Beal for easier baskets. Failure to do so could result in lengthy scoring droughts for Washington.

Weidie: Only one Celtic averaged more than 16 points per game in the first round, Isaiah Thomas. Seven Celtics averaged more than eight points per game in the first round, and five of them were backcourt/wing players — Thomas (23.0), Avery Bradley (16.0), Jae Crowder (12.0), Gerald Green (9.0), and Marcus Smart (8.0). John Wall and Bradley Beal have their own thing going, but they (and the only other backcourt member in the rotation, Brandon Jennings) are not exactly dealing with Dennis Schroder, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kent Bazemore, and Jose Calderon in the second round.

Now you could say this: Yes, as Adam Rubin mentions above, getting Gortat out of his funk, and to a lesser extent Morris, could be a key difference-maker in this series. And you could also say that with Wall averaging 29.5 against Atlanta and Beal averaging 25.8, Boston’s backcourt has a lot more to worry about in facing a more dynamic punch (than Chicago, with or without Rondo), even if the Celtics sheerly have more numbers to throw at the problem. That said, Wall and Beal are ‘a’ problem — 1a and 1b — and the better overall backcourt will advance.

Thing that scares you most about Celtics.

Rubin: 3-point shooting. Washington has difficulty defending the 3-point line. Boston lives there. Whereas, Atlanta only had three long-range threats (Kent Bazemore, Tim Hardaway, Jr and Dennis Schroder — Mike Dunleavy was 2-5 over 53 series minutes), Boston often plays five 3-point shooters at the same time. If the Wizards of Games 3 and 4 in Atlanta show up in Boston, Washington has no shot. But if they bring the same intensity from the second half of Game 5 and all of Game 6, Washington should be just fine.

Mobley: Isaiah Thomas averaged five fewer points and one more turnover per game during Boston’s series against the Chicago Bulls and he had just 12 points in the last game — part of that low scoring output had to do with the game being a blowout. Even still, Thomas was not his usual dominant self in that series as a whole. But with his sister’s funeral behind him, and a trip to the Conference Finals at stake, Thomas could very well revert to regular season form and be an absolute terror for the Wizards — especially in the fourth quarters of close games. The Wizards struggled to finish games against Atlanta, but the Hawks had Millsap and Schroder closing games, not Thomas, who averaged an NBA-best 9.8 points in the fourth quarter (and right there with 9.5 versus the Wizards).  Thomas can beat Washington by scoring 30-to-40 points, or he can beat them by going scoreless in the first three quarters and putting up at least 10 points in the fourth quarter. It is the Wizards’ job to see to it that the beast does not awaken.

Weidie: The Hawks turned the ball over at the third-highest rate (15.7%) during the regular season and that generally held true in the first round (exactly 15.7%, second-highest after the Bulls). Both Boston and Atlanta ranked in the league’s top six in Assist Percentage — just one metric for ‘moving the ball’ — during the season (respectively, 65.3, second; and 62.1, sixth), while the Wizards ranked 16th in Ast% at 57.7 percent.

What I’m getting at is that turnovers were not a main reason why Atlanta was a poor offensive team despite ball movement, and against Boston it’s clear that turnovers won’t hold back a much better offensive squad. Each the Wizards and Celtics turned the ball over at similar rates during their respective first round series, but Boston moves the ball much better — like, racking up dimes on made baskets 17.2 percent more of the time than the Wizards.

But, look, regular assists is sort of a ‘funny money’ stat, which is why secondary assists, free throw assists, and screen assists have started to officially enter the conversation. One translation: Boston averaged 16.5 more Assist Points Created than Washington in the first round. Why this scares me: we’ve seen too many instances this year (and last, and the year prior, etc.) where the Wizards struggle to stop the ball and keep up with it when it moves, which is a huge factor in their vulnerability when defending the 3-point line.

X-factor or intangible that will affect series.

Rubin: Scott Brooks’ ability to attack Isaiah Thomas on defense versus Brad Stevens’ schemes to hide him. All the talk this season has been about IT2’s scoring – especially his 9.8 points per game in the fourth quarter. But equally important has been the Celtics’ defensive woes with him on the court.

In the playoffs, those fourth quarter points are harder to come by and opponents have extra time to design offensive sets to isolate Thomas one-on-one. When Wall and Beal are on the court together, where do you hide Isaiah Thomas? Ben Standig, on his Locked On Wizards podcast, suggested that Otto Porter might be the target. This makes sense because Otto is not a natural one-on-one scorer. He prefers to get his baskets off timely cuts and spot up 3-pointers. Washington’s offense could be thrown out-of-sync if they repeatedly try to feed Otto in the post.

On the flip side, Porter is great at moving off the ball. He’s not some non-shooter like Andre Roberson who you can ignore in the corner. Otto should be able to extend possessions with offensive boards and make a living on baseline cuts if Thomas is sent his way.

Mobley: Markieff Morris.

It is no secret that aside from Games 1 and 6 of the Hawks-Wizards series, Markieff Morris struggled on both ends of the floor. He started the series with 21 points, and he ended it with a 17 point performance. But in between he averaged just 7.1 points and five fouls — most of them coming early in the game and forcing Brooks’s rotation to be thrown off.

Against the Celtics, Morris may find himself guarding Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, or Al Horford. Each of those players present unique challenges to Morris on the defensive end, but none are as crafty or versatile as Paul Millsap, who for the most part put Morris in a classroom over the series. If Morris can play solid defense with his feet and body, stay out of foul trouble, and average 15-to-20 points to boot, he will put an additional strain on a solid Celtics defense, and he’ll alleviate the pressure Wall and Beal will invariably feel on offense.

Weidie: No lie: Bojan Bogdanovic.

Only partially ironically is the fact that drag-’em-down, knock-’em-out, tougher defense playoff basketball boils down to teams playing smaller, more offensive-minded lineups in the fourth quarter.

Brad Stevens does it, most often relying on three-guard combos of either Thomas, Terry Rozier, and Smart or Thomas, Bradley, and Smart paired with Crowder and Horford.

Scott Brooks does it. Bogdanovic appeared in seven of Brooks’ top eight most-used fourth quarter lineups versus Atlanta (a trend not different from his regular season habits), with a mix of Gortat, Jason Smith, or Morris (most often Morris) playing the 5 alongside a range of other backcourt/wing combinations.

I don’t have to stress how big it was that Bogdanovic got going toward the end of Game 4 through the end of the Hawks series, shooting 6-for-12 from deep over those last three games after starting the series 1-for-10. Washington was 14-12 (.538) with Bogdanovic in the lineup during the regular season and 7-4 (.636) when he made two or more 3-pointers.

 


 

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Adam Rubin
Reporter / Writer at TAI
Adam grew up in the D.C. area and has been a Washington Bullets fan for over 25 years. He will not refer to the franchise as anything other than the Bullets unless required to do so by Truth About It editorial standards. Adam spent many nights at the Capital Centre in the ‘90s where he witnessed such things as Michael Jordan’s “LaBradford Smith game,” the inexcusable under-usage of Gheorghe Muresan’s unstoppable post moves, and the basketball stylings of Ledell Eackles.