A popular criticism of today’s NBA from the Joe Budden–old-head set is that it is soft. Too reliant on 3-pointers. Too dependent on small ball. Populated by players who’ve been texting each other since AAU. It’s not grimy enough. Not smashmouth enough. Not ’90s enough.
And all of that — minus the subjective conclusions — is essentially true. Which is why the Celtics-Wizards series is so good, so enervating, so necessary, and so must-watch. This series is the perfect rebuke to the old-head war cry of softness. The ideal antidote to the inevitable Warriors-Cavaliers end result.
This series takes prehistoric JNCO-era bully-ball intensity and transports it to a modern setting. Dudes are jawing at each other constantly, walking into each other after dead balls, throwing little ticky-tack elbows after whistles, and glaring at each other. Every foray into the paint has a cost. That’s the place where pettiness and acrimony boils over, and the line between “hard-nosed” and “cheap shot” blur.
It’s not exactly the no-layups rule, but it’s the closest thing to it. Isaiah Thomas had a tooth knocked out. Fouls at the rim look like the mosh pit at a hardcore show. And the modern twist on this old-school brutality is that all the belligerents are, like, 6-foot-3 and can shoot the 3. It’s a small-ball royal rumble and it is fantastic.
These two teams hate each other, and they have for quite a while.
Even when the game is a blowout, as Thursday night’s Game 3 116–89 Wizards victory was, there’s no looking away. Blowouts usually put me into a narcotized trance. With the Celtics and the Wiz, I’m scared to get a snack. I’m waiting to go to the bathroom like I’m in fifth grade. I DON’T EVEN CHECK MY PHONE UNTIL COMMERCIAL BREAKS. I was terrified that I might miss the moment when the background hum of tomfoolery these teams create pops off into some real shit.
Which, of course, it did!
First up, the undercard: Jonas Jerebko (!!!) and Ian Mahinmi.
Early in the second quarter, Jerebko Eurostepped past Bojan Bogdanovic for the layup. Mahinmi, playing his first game since April 10 due to a calf strain, went up for the block. His momentum carried him into Jerebko, sending him to the floor. Then Jerebko, from a sitting position, grabbed the Frenchman’s shorts and pulled him to the court. Mahinmi gave Jonas a little shove, and the next thing you know the two were being separated. I repeat: THE HATE VIBES BETWEEN THESE TEAMS ARE SO POWERFUL THAT DUDES LIKE JONAS “I’M BLEEDING” JEREBKO AND IAN “NONSTOP INJURIES” MAHINMI ARE BEEFING NOW. Jonas Jerebko made a dirty play in a crucial playoff game! I feel like I’m watching my children grow up.
Minutes later, the main event: Kelly Olynyk and Kelly Oubre Jr.
THE BATTLE OF THE KELLYS! There are a lot of layers to this one, so bear with me. It begins with Olynyk delivering some high-volume chin music to Oubre while setting a screen. Olynyk, of course, has a history of cheap-looking shots that are probably the result of honest oafishness. He is in the bottom-third percentile of “moving in a graceful manner.”
Oubre tumbled to the court, then immediately popped to his feet. As one does when possessed by the fiery spirit of vengeance that turns men’s wits to boiling oil. He barreled into Olynyk’s chest and the Canadian promptly flopped. Oubre was ejected.
All well and good. But look at these stills.
There’s Oubre, spouting invective over the wan, supine body of Olynyk. Ref Monty McCutchen, holding Oubre back. Wizards backup guard Brandon Jennings — who is freaking terrible and yet was somehow one of my favorite Knicks for two-thirds of this season because he’s the Michael Jordan of trolls — was giving the most dishonest effort ever at being a peacemaker. (Jennings would later have to be separated from C’s backup Terry Rozier because he is a shit-talking king. This dude is the emperor of a shit-talking federation that spans multiple continents. Brandon Jennings talks so much shit the Dalai Lama would swing on him. This guy beefed with Joe Budden before it was meme-worthy.)
Now look at Markieff (IS IT HIM???) and John Wall on the bench.
KEEF NEVER EVEN UNLACES HIS FINGERS. WALL LOOKS LIKE HE’S WAITING FOR HIS CAR TO COME OUT OF THE CAR WASH.
THE FIGHT IS POTENTIALLY BREAKING OUT. OUBRE LOOKS LIKE HE DOESN’T BELIEVE THAT LIL YACHTY IS ACTUALLY HAPPY ALL THE TIME. AND KEEF AND WALL ARE ACTING LIKE TWO SENIOR CITIZENS IN A BOCA RATON SAUNA TRYING NOT TO TALK ABOUT POLITICS.
Meanwhile, in “for the culture news”:
(He didn’t say this, but a boy can dream.)
I need this right now. The world needs this right now. I don’t care about anything else other than this series going seven games and no one getting suspended. Warriors-Jazz is an immolation. LeBron is pretending to drink beer while playing the Raptors. The Rockets and Spurs are trading blowouts. I want a series where I’m constantly waiting for the fight. Not that I want anyone to fight. But I definitely want to watch a series that makes me feel, hey, any second now, they might.
Please sign the petition.
Game 4 is Sunday at 6:30 Eastern.