BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics will have to win one more game to qualify for the NBA Playoffs, and their first of two chances comes Tuesday night when they host the Washington Wizards in the 7-8 Play-In game.
This is very clearly not where the Celtics want to be, but it’s where they find themselves after a disappointing 36-36 regular season. Boston is the top team in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament, and can claim the 7-seed in the actual playoffs with a win Tuesday evening.
There’s no use complaining about the many reasons the Celtics are in this situation. It’d be a waste of time to complain about the team’s total lack of defense as of late, or their deficiency in heart during one of the most important stretch of the season. For a team that kept saying they wanted nothing to do with the play-in tournament, they basically threw in the towel during their 4-9 finish to the season.
But for now, all that matter’s is Tuesday’s tilt against the Wizards.
The Regular Season
The Celtics took two of three from the Wizards during the regular season.
Boston took the first matchup, 116-107, on Jan. 8 when Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined to score 59 points. Bradley Beal dropped 41 for the Wizards, while Russell Westbrook was held to just 12 points, largely due to a dislocated finger.
The Celtics held a 28-point lead in the third quarter, but Washington cut it down to just four points midway through the fourth quarter before the Celtics pulled away. After the game, Tatum tested positive for COVID-19 and was out for roughly two weeks.
Boston suffered one of its many “worst losses of the season” in its second matchup with the Wizards, a 104-91 loss in Washington on a Sunday afternoon. Beal had 35 for the Wizards and Westbrook had 13 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. Tatum scored just six points for the Celtics, who never led after the first minute of the game. It was Boston’s 10th loss in 16 games, dropping the team to 13-13 on the season.
The final matchup came on the last day of February, and the Celtics needed some clutch buckets from Tatum to pull the comeback win. Washington led 110-105 with 47 seconds left, but Tatum scored six straight to lift the C’s to a 111-110 win in Boston, highlighted by a pair of strong driving layups in the final 15 seconds. He finished with 31 points, while Kemba Walker added 21 for Boston.
The Celtics won that game without Jaylen Brown, who was out with left knee soreness. It was a good preview of life for Celtics in the play-in game, as Brown is out for the postseason after undergoing wrist surgery last week.
The Wizards Are Hot
While the Celtics stumbled to close the season, the Wizards turned everything around. A spot in the play-in tournament seemed unlikely just a month ago, but Washington won 17 of its final 23 games to storm into the postseason picture.
Tatum vs. Beal
The matchup will pit good friends Tatum and Beal against each other, which should make for some exciting theater on Tuesday night. Tatum led Boston to that comeback win in February because of a renewed sense to drive to the basket, so hopefully he remembers that when the play-in game tips off. He had 31 and 32 points in Boston’s two wins over the Wizards, but a season-low six points in their one loss. With Brown out, it’s up to Tatum to carry the load.
Beal certainly did that for his team against the Celtics, averaging 40.7 points off 55.3 percent shooting in his three games against Boston. He averaged a career-best 31.3 points per game this season, and had a 50-point performance in a win over the Pacers just last week. He had eight games where he scored at least 40 points this season, two of which came against the Celtics.
The King Of Triple Doubles
Beal was a little off in Washington’s regular season finale, slowed by a hamstring injury that will be lingering come Tuesday night. But Russell Westbrook was on, leading the Wiz to a 115-110 win over Charlotte with his 38th triple-double of the season (23 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists). He averaged a triple double for the season yet again, something he’s done in four of the last five seasons.
Westbrook’s shooting numbers leave a lot to be desired, but the man can get to the basket — and subsequently, the free throw line — with relative ease. When his driving doesn’t end with a layup or free throws, it opens up clean looks for teammates. Keeping at bay and off the charity stripe will be keys to a Boston victory on Tuesday.
Boston’s Supporting Cast
Brown was actually Boston’s leading scorer against the Wizards this season. But he’s not going to be able to help Tatum against Washington, so someone else has to step up Tuesday night. Or, more accurately, a couple of someone elses have to step up.
It has to come from Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, both of whom are desperate for a lengthy postseason run; Kemba to alleviate concerns about his health and Fournier because a lengthy postseason run is not something he’s had during his nine-year career.
Walker has looked a lot better as of late, hitting the 30-point mark in four of his last six games while shooting 51 percent. Unfortunately for the Celtics, they lost two of those four games.
Fournier has also looked pretty good over his last six games, averaging nearly 20 points off 52 percent shooting. He’s looked like his old self from deep as well as of late, knocking down 54 percent from three-point range in his last eight games.
Brad Stevens needs to beg Marcus Smart to exert all of his energy on the defensive end. He’s going to need to bully Westbrook, and the C’s really don’t need Marcus focusing on his offense in this one-game playoff. That offense was nearly non-existent against the Wizards this season, with Smart going 2-for-10 and 0-for-5 from deep in his one game against Washington this season.
… the Celtics lose? Well then they have to play the winner of the Hornets-Pacers matchup for a shot at the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference and a first-round matchup with the top-seeded 76ers. That game would be played Thursday night in Boston, though like the play-in tournament itself, is something the Celtics would really like to avoid.