By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics and Wizards are down to a best-of-three in their Eastern Conference Semifinals, with Boston hoping a return home will sway the momentum of the series.
After winning six straight, the Celtics have now dropped their last two games, and in embarrassing fashion. The Wizards ran them out of the Verizon Center in Games 3 and 4, and have momentum on their side with the series tied 2-2.
But things can change quickly when a team gets back on their home floor, and the Celtics will have to come out and assert themselves early in Wednesday night’s Game 5. They’ve constantly talked about throwing that symbolic “first punch” throughout the series, but now they have to go out and actually do it (just don’t count on it from Kelly Olynyk).
We’ll see if Brad Stevens tinkers with his starting lineup and rotation, in hopes of avoiding the early holes Boston has fallen into throughout the series. Gerald Green could get another start, with Jonas Jerebko and rookie Jaylen Brown candidates to be inserting into the starting five. But just about everyone agrees that Amir Johnson shouldn’t see the floor. At all. Ever again.
Here’s what else we’ll be watching as the Celtics and Wizards continue their quest for a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Isaiah Is Ready, But What About His Supporting Cast?
“I’m treating it as a must-win. I’m treating it as the biggest game that I’ve ever played,” Isaiah Thomas said of Game 5 on Tuesday. “Hopefully, everybody else is treating it like that.”
Thomas had some superhuman efforts in the first two games of the set in Boston, but was held in check in both losses in Washington DC. He was held to just 13 points in Game 3 and 19 points in Game 4, the first time all season Boston’s offensive leader failed to score more than 20 points in back-to-back contests. Thomas scored only two points in the second half on Sunday and attempted no free throws, which he complained about after the loss.
He has just one mentality heading into Wednesday night.
“To kill,” he said bluntly on Tuesday. “To be the best I can possibly be. Put my team in position to be successful, make plays and be myself. I have to play with my foot on the gas. I can’t take it off. I gotta keep going and I know if I do that my teammates will follow.”
IT is obviously fired up for this one, and he’ll no doubt be ready to put on a show back on the TD Garden floor. But the C’s needed herculean efforts from their miniature scoring machine to take Games 1 and 2, and with the Wizards finding a way to slow him down over the last two games, it will be up to Boston’s supporting cast to lend a hand. Al Horford has to continue to do just about everything, and the Celtics could use a scoring punch from either Avery Bradley or Jae Crowder. Thomas and the Celtics could use another performance like Crowder’s in Game 1, when he shot 8-for-14 and scored 24 points, instead of his Game 4 effort when he missed seven of his nine attempts (including all three of his bids from downtown) and scored just six points. After a pair of lackluster showings in the nation’s capital, Crowder should be ready to shine back in Boston.
There’s a good chance Thomas wows us all once again, but life would be much easier for him and the Celtics if one of his sidekicks could step up a little bit more.
Getting Rid Of The Runs
That 16-0 run the Wizards started the series with (in Boston) was bad. Their 22-0 run in Game 3 was far worse, turning a 12-12 game in the first quarter into an insurmountable 34-12 hole for Boston.
So it’s hard to put into words (at least words suitable for print) just how terrible it was to see Washington rip off a 26-0 run to destroy any chances of the Celtics winning Game 4 on Sunday night. It was demoralizing, and it was all Boston’s fault. Of those 26 points, 19 of them came off of Celtics turnovers. About the only good part of the run was it was over relatively quick, only lasting six minutes of game time.
Brad Stevens used just two of his timeouts during that Wizards sprint, first when it was an 11-0 run and then again when they had put 26 straight on the scoreboard. By the time he called for his second stop in action, it was too late and the Celtics had little fight left in them the rest of the way. If Washington gets going again on Wednesday night, look for Stevens to be a little bit quicker at calling for a break in the action.
Washington is a much different team on the road, so any momentum they brought with them may dissipate early on as long as the Celtics don’t give up another double-digit run from the jump. But the bottom line is, big or small, turnover driven or not, the Celtics cannot afford to give up any more ridiculous run by the Wizards. Basketball is a game of runs, but there are only so many times a team can dig themselves out such a gigantic hole.
There is something off about Marcus Smart, and it’s not just his jump shot. That is always off. This is something different, and it looks like the guard has lost all confidence in himself.
Smart is shooting just 32 percent for the series and has made just four of his last 16 shots. He has 15 turnovers in the last four games, lowlighted by an eight turnover showing in Game 3 (Smart had eight turnovers, total, in Boston’s six-game series against Chicago). As stated above, turnovers were a gigantic problem for the Celtics in their two games at the Verizon Center, and Smart was in the thick of it.
Smart asked his way off the floor in Game 1 because he knew he was being a detriment to his team and he tried to do the same in Game 2, a request that Stevens ignored. It’s clear that Smart is not where he should be at the moment, but the Celtics need him to find his way back to that gritty, hard-nosed play that makes Marcus who he is. Maybe a few cuts to the hoop, rather than those gross jumpers, will help get that confidence back, because the Celtics may need Smart more than he knows.
How Much Can Avery Bradley Do?
Smart’s importance to the team is growing because Avery Bradley is hurting (again). The C’s guard is dealing with two hip pointers, but said on Tuesday that he is feeling good and ready to go for Wednesday night.
“I had never had one before, so it was just bad luck. My right feels better than my left right now,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
“He’s sore, certainly, but he looked pretty good today,” Stevens said after Tuesday’s practice. “We did a lot of break down and not a ton of live stuff and it looks like he’s all set.”
Whether Bradley can go or not really isn’t the question; it’s more along the lines of what can Bradley give the team given his current condition? If he was just counted on to hit some shots, that would be one thing. But he’s also being tasked with slowing down either John Wall or Bradley Beal, which is hard enough with no hip pointers, let alone two. He may be feeling good after having two days off between games, but Bradley could also be one more Marcin Gortat screen away from being done for the playoffs.
The Celtics need Bradley on both ends of the floor, and if he can’t provide something on either end, Stevens may have no choice but to turn those duties over to someone else. That makes the Boston bench, especially Smart, even more important the rest of the series.
Mike Gorman previews Celtics-Wizards Game 5 with Toucher & Rich:
Tune in to Celtics-Wizards Game 5 on 98.5 The Sports Hub — the flagship station of the Boston Celtics. Pregame coverage begins at 7:30pm!