Long after the Wizards’ 123–108 victory over the Celtics on Tuesday is forgotten, their decision to dress in all black before an otherwise meaningless regular-season game in January will be remembered for its sheer pettiness. The two teams have gotten into several scuffles in the past year, culminating in a face-off between John Wall and Jae Crowder in a game a few weeks ago. Yet Tuesday night came and went with hardly any on-court shenanigans. The only real incident came between Marcus Smart and the Celtics coaching staff, as Smart was sent to the locker room toward the end of the fourth quarter following a heated argument with some of the assistants.
The game did create tension in the standings, however: The Wizards are now only 1.5 games behind the Celtics for the no. 3 seed in the East. After a disappointing 2–8 start that had many observers questioning the direction of the organization, the Wizards are in the race for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Their depth is still a huge question mark, but that’s less of an issue in the playoffs (provided their core stays healthy). Their star power will make them a dangerous opponent in a seven-game series.
The Celtics have now lost three straight games, all of them without Avery Bradley, who has been sitting with a sore Achilles. Bradley is having the best season of his seven-year career, and his absence has been felt on both sides of the ball. Long one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders, Bradley has developed into a lethal secondary scorer playing off Isaiah Thomas, averaging 17.7 points a game on 47.5 percent shooting, including 40.9 percent from 3. His absence meant this game could tell us only so much about a potentially fascinating playoff series between the two teams, but there were still several interesting takeaways from this game.
1. The Wizards Tried to Make Thomas a Passer
The Wizards’ defensive game plan was pretty clear: they were going to make someone other than Isaiah Thomas beat them. They hounded him all over the floor, chased him over screens, and sent multiple defenders his way whenever he got into the lane. During one play in the third quarter, Thomas drew four defenders on a drive along the baseline and kicked the ball out to a wide-open Jaylen Brown, a 31.1 percent 3-point shooter on the season:
Thomas did a good job of taking what the defense gave him, handing out 13 assists and only committing three turnovers. The pick-and-pop was open every time he came off the screen, and he repeatedly fed the ball to his big men, particularly Al Horford, who finished with 22 points on a hyper-efficient 9-of-12 shooting. Marcin Gortat doesn’t have the foot speed to both contest Thomas in the lane and get back to Horford on the 3-point line, and that could be a matchup the Celtics exploit if these two teams meet in a playoff series.
It’s a tribute to how well Thomas has been playing offensively that it feels like the Wizards did an excellent job defensively to hold him to 25 points on 7-of-19 shooting. Wall had several great individual defensive plays against Thomas, but there’s only so much you can do to slow down a guy who can shoot so easily off the dribble. Thomas is a genius at creating space off screens as well as at drawing contact in the lane, and he’s going to get buckets no matter what type of defense he’s going up against.
2. John Wall Aggressively Looked to Score
In the battle of All-Star-caliber point guards, Wall was able to play Thomas to a draw, which was a massive win for the Wizards considering how much the Celtics depend on Thomas for offense. Wall outscored his counterpart, with 27 points on 11-of-20 shooting to go with seven assists and four turnovers. He called his own number a lot on Tuesday, and there was no reason for him not to. Wall is so fast he can toy with defenders, especially big men who get switched onto him, once he gets a head of steam.
Wall is not an elite shooter, but he has significantly improved his jumper over the course of his career. His percentages are up in most categories, as he currently boasts career highs from the field (46.4 percent), the free throw line (82.4 percent), and on long 2-point attempts from 16-plus feet out (41.9 percent). It all adds up to a career-high 23 points per game this season, which is exactly what the Wizards need from him. It’s not enough to be a great passer in today’s game; a point guard who runs a lot of pick-and-rolls has to be a consistent scorer as well.
Instead of passing to set up the shot, the best point guards these days shoot to set up the pass. Thomas is a perfect example. If a guard can score well enough off the dribble, it distorts the defense so much that it creates easy passing lanes to set up everyone else. The ability to thread the needle through multiple defenders is great, but it’s easier to just draw two defenders and make the simple pass instead. Wall being aggressive is particularly important for the Wizards because his size (6-foot-4 and 195 pounds) forces teams to put bigger wing defenders on him, creating more favorable matchups for Beal and Otto Porter Jr.
3. Bradley Beal Was Balling
No player benefited from Avery Bradley’s absence more than Beal, who roasted every defender the Celtics put on him on Tuesday, scoring 31 points on 12-of-18 shooting. Washington put the game away in the fourth quarter by riding Beal, who scored 11 points in a span of less than four minutes. It was a great example of how Beal can feed off of Wall, as his scoring run started when the Celtics moved Thomas off of Wall and put him on Beal. At only 5-foot-9, there’s pretty much nothing Thomas can do to bother Beal on defense.
The Wizards can punish teams that have poor defenders in the backcourt, and this type of performance had to be what they were envisioning when they spent top-three picks on Wall and Beal in 2010 and 2012. While there were stories in the offseason about the two not getting along, they have great synergy on the court and their skill sets align perfectly. There has been a sort of osmosis effect with the two sharing the backcourt for so many years: Wall is becoming a better shooter, and Beal is becoming a better passer.
This season is by far the best Beal has ever played; not coincidentally, it’s also the healthiest he has ever been. He has missed only four games, after missing an average of 20 games in each of his first four seasons. Beal has always been a great shooter, but now he’s diversifying his talents. He’s averaging a career-high number of free throw attempts (4.9) and assists (3.6) without increasing his turnover average (2.0). When Beal is moving the ball, the Wizards play beautiful basketball.
4. The Celtics’ Other Guards Couldn’t Buy a Basket
The Celtics have a lot of bricklayers on the perimeter, and the Wizards took full advantage of that on Tuesday. Beyond Thomas, the Boston trio of Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier combined to shoot 8-for-25 from the field. Those three got open looks for most of the game, but couldn’t knock down enough of them to make the Wizards pay for their disrespectful defensive strategy. Brad Stevens even dug deep into his bench and unearthed third-year guard James Young, who hasn’t appeared in a game since December 2, in an attempt to find shooting. Young went 1-for-4 from the field and didn’t show much to merit any more playing time.
All four of those players are recent first-round picks still on rookie contracts, and only Young came into the NBA with a reputation as a perimeter threat. The Celtics appear to have been drafting for length and athleticism, gambling on their ability to turn these projects into shooters once they get to the pros, and it hasn’t worked out so far. If Smart and Brown, both of whom were top-six picks, can ever become good outside shooters, their defensive tenacity and ability to finish at the rim will give them a chance to be special players. That’s a pretty big if, though.
5. Watch Out for Kelly Oubre Jr.
The Wizards bench has not exactly covered itself in glory this season. Their starting lineup has a net rating of plus-10.3 in 776 minutes — that hasn’t been an issue. Their problem is how little they’ve gotten from their reserves, one of the least-talented groups in the NBA. One of the few bright spots has been Oubre, a second-year man from Kansas who is starting to come into his own. Oubre was their only reserve who played more than 15 minutes on Tuesday (the Celtics, in comparison, had four), and the Wizards were plus-10 in his 30 minutes.
At 6-foot-7 and 205 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Oubre is a starter kit for a wing player, with the length and athleticism to defend multiple positions and the shooting ability to stretch the floor. He’s shooting 32.7 percent on 2.5 3-point attempts per game this season, and that’s the crucial number to watch for him, as he spends most of the game spotting up off the ball. The better he shoots, the harder opposing teams will close out on him, creating driving lanes and chances for him to make plays off the dribble.
Oubre showed some intriguing defensive versatility on Tuesday, spending a huge chunk of the fourth quarter on Thomas. Scott Brooks must really trust Oubre, because not many coaches would give a 21-year-old the responsibility of guarding one of the best scorers in the league. If he can become a reliable 3-and-D player with the ability to attack a closeout, it opens up a lot of interesting lineup options for the Wizards. The most intriguing is moving Porter to the 4 and spreading the floor with athletic shooters. The five-man unit of Wall, Beal, Oubre, Porter, and Gortat has been awesome this season, with a net rating of plus-28 in 120 minutes, and it could be a killer unit in the playoffs.
Oubre was considered as good a player as any in the country coming out of high school in 2014. He had only one season as a role player on an excellent Kansas team before he declared for the draft, and he never got the chance to show what he could do in a bigger role in college. He hasn’t been a featured player on offense since his senior year of high school. It’s unclear what Oubre is capable of given more opportunities, but his profile suggests he still has quite a bit of unrealized potential left.