By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Washington Wizards have come a long way during the 2016-17 season. At the start of December, they were an ugly 6-12 and looked like a team wasn’t buying in yet to new head coach Scott Brooks. The tide has shifted considerably since then as John Wall and Bradley Beal have carried the Wiz to the top-three of the Eastern Conference, pushing the Celtics and Raptors for a shot at the No. 2 seed.
That impressive turnaround sets the stage for arguably the biggest game remaining on the Celtics’ calendar Monday night, when the Wizards visit the TD Garden for the final matchup between the two squads during the regular season. Washington leads the season series by a 2-1 margin, a series that has featured plenty of noteworthy contests, including a postgame scuffle between Jae Crowder and John Wall at the Garden last January. The bad blood carried over to their next matchup a couple of weeks later, when the Wizards elected to dress for a funeral (to bury Boston) ahead of a 123-108 win at the Verizon Center.
While the tensions between the two squads may have simmered a couple of months later, there is still plenty riding on the matchup from Boston’s perspective. With just 12 games remaining, the Celtics have the opportunity to gain a stranglehold on the No. 2 seed in the East with a victory. By tying up the season series between the two squads at 2-2, the first postseason tiebreaker between the franchises would come down to Conference record, a category where Boston already owns a three-game edge in the standings.
The Celtics would not only increase their lead in the overall standings to 2.5 games over Washington with a win Monday, but they would build an almost insurmountable four-game edge in the Conference record standings with just 11 games to go. Barring a complete collapse by Boston down the stretch (highly unlikely with 8 of Boston’s final 11 games coming at home) the Wizards would not be able to catch the green in the conference record category, effectively guaranteeing Boston the end-of-season tiebreaker between the two squads (if it comes up).
Seeing that the Wizards still have a challenging five-game road trip remaining that includes matchups in Cleveland, Utah, Golden State and Los Angeles (against both the Lakers and Clippers), it’s hard to envision them finishing three games better than Boston over the final 11 games of the year. That type of a deficit would give the Celtics some flexibility to rest players down the stretch, particularly if the possibility of going after the Cavaliers for the top seed in the East is eliminated.
All of those potential advantages become moot though if the Celtics don’t take care of business Monday. Coming off an ugly loss Sunday in Philadelphia, rest won’t be on the side of the C’s as they return home since the starters logged heavy minutes in the defeat. The status of Isaiah Thomas also remains questionable after he was sidelined with a bruised right knee for the past two games.
You can bet the point guard will be fighting his way on the floor for the start of this six-game homestand for Boston, particularly since a win now could buy him some more rest down the road.
Ultimately, the Celtics can put an end to a lot of seeding drama ahead of the postseason by taking care of business at the Garden. It won’t be playoff atmosphere just yet, but you can bet the intensity from both teams will be as high as you can hope to see for a regular season matchup.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.