John Wall skipped and yowled at the end of practice Saturday. Following an extended, smile-filled debate with a member of the basketball development team, the stakes were set. Wall had to hit from midcourt to claim victory. He ran into his shot, flipped it up with two hands, then began his child-like flaunting after it swished through.
Things have gone well for Wall of late. He was discussed on national radio Saturday morning despite the Wizards operating so often in the land of the obscure. His 3-pointer — with his team down two and on the verge of elimination — Friday night produced further consideration of Washington’s basketball team. At the least, it bought the club one more game. Monday in Boston, Washington will receive 48 more minutes during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to determine if the team’s best season since bell bottoms and jumpsuits will continue.
“You can’t go crazy after a big win and you can’t get too down after a tough loss,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “Basically had both situations the last two games. Tough loss Game 5, but it was one game. We didn’t lose the series. An incredible win Game 6, but we didn’t win the series. We just have to stay focused on what we have to do. It’s going to be a tough challenge ahead of us Monday night.”
Winning in Boston has been difficult. Washington has now lost five times there this season. It is loud, the history is imposing. The Celtics’ role players are distinctly more effective when playing beneath 17 championship banners. If the Wizards end up losing the series, they can look back at multiple chances during Game 2 in Boston to leave with a win. Monday is their fourth and final shot this series to win on the road, something they knew they would have to do before the series began in order to advance.
The situation, like so much this season, dials back to the franchise’s brief and distant glory in the late 1970s. Washington last played a Game 7 in the 1979 Eastern Conference Finals. It won, 107-105, defeating the San Antonio Spurs. That was the ninth Game 7 for the organization. It is 6-3 all-time in the series conclusions. No organization has played more Game 7s than the Celtics, who are 21-8 all-time in the situation. That’s the best winning percentage in NBA history. The last was in 2012. Among the current Celtics, only Avery Bradley has been part of a Boston Game 7, so history means little on both sides.
The Wizards are trying to temper adulation from Friday’s win. Brooks said Saturday that he slept well Friday night, if briefly. The team was back on the practice court early afternoon the next day. It met at the plane Sunday, dragging stacks of luggage behind it. Should the Wizards win Monday, they will fly straight to Cleveland on Monday night to face the Cavaliers, who have not played a basketball game since May 7.
To direct the plane west instead of south, Washington will have to maintain and adjust. It has figured out how to corral Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas who almost single-handedly won Game 2 when he scored 53 points. The extra attention on Thomas to limit his shot attempts — he’s averaged just 15 attempts per game since getting up 33 in the Game 2 overtime win — has provided openings for others. Bradley, in particular has found his way. He put together back-to-back games with 25 or more points for the first time this season after scoring 29 and 27 points, in Games 4 and 5, respectively. Al Horford has also become a menace.
“We’re going to have to do a lot of things well,” Brooks said. “But, they’re going to have to do a lot of things to beat us, too. We’re going to play much better than we played Game 5.”
There is a team note to consider: Washington finished with a 46-37 advantage in rebounding in Game 6. In 10 matchups this season between the Celtics and Wizards, the team with the rebounding advantage has won eight times. Boston has latched onto a concept of leak outs for easy baskets when it is able to rebound defensively. Wall, often termed a one-man fastbreak by opposing coaches, is able to punish the Celtics in transition after misses should the Wizards rebound. Control underneath leads to control down the floor and, often, on the scoreboard.
Oddly, in a series tied 3-3, there have been just two close games. Game 2 and Game 6 were decided at the end. Otherwise, the home team has clobbered the visitor. Washington used a 26-0 run to win Game 4. It lost by 22 points in Game 5.
“I don’t know,” Bradley Beal said in Boston after Game 5. “We’re just beating the [expletive] out of each other.”
Monday presents the last opportunity for the upstart or the top seed. One will be done, going into the summer wondering why its roster was a step short of climbing into the ring with LeBron James. The other will have the only thing non-Cleveland teams in the Eastern Conference can hope for: a chance one step from the Finals to stop James. The odds of that are low, but better than the alternative.
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