By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics and Wizards are no strangers to bad blood, but tensions between the two times should be higher than ever on Sunday night at the Verizon Center for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Boston still holds a 2-1 lead over Washington after a blowout 116-89 loss in Game 3 that featured three ejections and seven technical fouls. Wizards reserve forward Kelly Oubre Jr. was one of the three players ejected in Game 3, but he’ll have to wait one more game to return to the floor after the league suspended him for his cheap shot on Kelly Olynyk.
With the intensity expected to be ratcheted up as the Wizards try to tie up the series before it heads back to Boston, here are three key things to watch for in Game 4.
Who will the Celtics go with in the starting five?
Brad Stevens hinted at Saturday’s practice that changes might be coming yet again for Boston out of the gate after watching his team fall behind by double digits early in all three games this series. The Wizards starting unit has dominated Boston for the entire postseason with a healthy balance of size and athleticism, so there’s no clear cut solution to solve either issue. Does Stevens opt for more floor spacing with Kelly Olynyk or Jonas Jerebko? Will he try to get more athletic with Jaylen Brown on the wing? Or does he to set more a defensive tone from the jump by inserting Marcus Smart into the fold? Stevens pushed the right buttons in the Bulls series after it became evident Amir Johnson was not a right matchup for the C’s. Now, it’s on Stevens and his staff yet again to find the right formula to prevent his team from playing catch up on the road for the better part of 48 minutes.
How will Kelly Oubre’s suspension impact the Wizards?
The second-year small forward is one of Washington’s best reserve perimeter defenders and has spent long stretches of Celtics-Wizards games this year guarding Isaiah Thomas while John Wall rested. That’s a worrisome issue for the Washington head coach Scott Brooks in Game 4, since if Wall gets into foul trouble, he has no appealing option to try to slow down Thomas. The flip side of that argument though involves the Wizards’ struggles while Oubre has played this series. The team has a -33 net rating with him on the court, a number shaped in part by the small forward playing with the bench unit. Still, Oubre’s presence on the floor has allowed the Celtics to hide Isaiah Thomas on him defensively, a mismatch the Wizards haven’t made Boston pay for to this point. Without Oubre out there, there are fewer places for Thomas to hide, which will put Boston’s defense to test again in Game 4.
Can the Celtics get Al Horford more involved in the offense?
While Thomas will rightfully get most of the headlines, there is no hotter player on the Boston roster right now than Horford. He’s shooting 63 percent from the field this postseason, including 70 percent against the Wizards in the second round. The big man has also been red-hot from downtown as well, knocking down 54 percent of his 3-point attempts, which has helped to pull Wizards center Marcin Gortat out of the paint. The problem with these numbers if you are Brad Stevens is that Horford has actually been taking about two fewer shots per game than he did during the regular season, despite the hot streak. Horford is an unselfish player, but the Celtics need him to get a bit more greedy in this series in order to keep pace with a high-powered Wizards offense, particularly on the road. Look for the ball to find Horford’s hands plenty in Game 4, particularly if Washington attempts to lock down Thomas with double teams once again in the pick-and-roll.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.