BOSTON — Spying his coach returning from a press conference, Ted Leonsis broke from the conversation he was having to go talk to Scott Brooks. Team president Ernie Grunfeld, the man responsible for the good and bad of Washington’s roster, came along.
Brooks leaned on the concrete wall just short of the of the visitor’s locker room entrance discussing what everyone saw on this final night in Boston. The Wizards were close, which means they are not there yet.
It’s over now, the season that had a plethora of positives, that lasted until the seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals and was built on the ambition of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. Washington’s 115-105 loss Monday night in TD Garden left it with a raised knee but not a completed next step. For the third time in four seasons, the Wizards go home after losing in the second round to the top-seeded team in the conference. They will not have a chance to fight with LeBron James in the conference finals. They will again have their stage muted a round before they thought they should have and it is up to that trio who met in the hall to figure out how stop it from happening again.
“It’s probably a little too much to answer right now, but I will say this, we’re all disappointed,” Brooks had said minutes earlier. “We all felt we’ve made strides this year to get to the next step. We accomplished a lot as a team this season. Nine new players, a new coach, a new coaching staff, and we established our identity, how we want to play going forward and it’s pretty good basketball.
“A lof of good basketball was played this year, but we still have a lot to improve on and that’s the thing about our team. We have a young enough team that we should be better next year.”
Brooks was able to bring the Wizards to 49 wins; a single and deciding game on the road; 30 home wins; a season-resurrecting run in early December that lasted until the All-Star break in the middle of February. Washington went from a disaster-chasing 2-8 to one of the up-and-coming clubs in the Eastern Conference, where it is still LeBron and everyone else.
Monday night was their chance to make this season different. It was a chance not only for themselves, but also to earn some separation in the District’s sports landscape. The Capitals had lost Game 7 a week prior. The Redskins were in between controversies and offseason work. Few wanted to read about the Nationals’ toxic bullpen again.
But, that chance at tilting the spotlight was fettered away. The end started when the third quarter closed, then the fourth quarter began. It was finalized by an unlikely Celtics influence — Kelly Olynyk — and was clear with 1:01 to play. This would not be the hump-climbing season. It would just be the same stall.
There were thoughts of the opposite by the third quarter. Washington had withstood an opening slump which put it behind 8-2, prompting a timeout and flashbacks to the stampeding Celtics start in Game 5. Though, by the half, it led by two points. The start of the third quarter also went well. Otto Porter’s jump shot put the Wizards in front by a boo-inducing five points. Then, the Celtics’ bench changed everything.
Marcus Smart, an inhibited 3-point shooter, made one. Rookie Jaylen Brown created a turnover and zoomed up the floor for Boston’s first fastbreak points of the night. Washington’s five-point lead disappeared in an instant thanks to two role players. Brooks called timeout. It did not stifle the Celtics’ run. Boston’s lead flew to six on back-to-back 3-pointers, one from Isaiah Thomas, another from Smart. A building filled with grousing fans five minutes prior was alive again.
“The whole momentum just changed, just shifted toward them,” Otto Porter said.
The six-point lead vaulted to 13 two minutes after the fourth quarter began. Washington rallied to cut it to six after a timeout. That’s when Olynyk began his unlikely, season-sapping run.
Olynyk scored 14 points in the fourth quarter. He was active, open and effective. Washington’s idea of stopping Thomas with two or three people was also a dare. If anyone else on the Celtics could beat them, they would have to spend the summer accepting the result. Olynyk did. They will.
“I mean, Kelly Olynyk came in and I think he gave us 26 off the bench,” Marcin Gortat said. “Can’t happen. It can’t happen. Their bench was really good [Monday]. They outplayed the starters and our second unit. You can’t win games if you’re going to let them do stuff like that.”
The game was not close again. Washington’s two-point halftime lead was forgotten. Bradley Beal’s 38 points moot. John Wall’s 8-for-23 a lamentable sidenote. The dismal play of Washington’s bench players — who were outscored 48-5 — again surfaced despite season-long attempts to fix that unit.
Wall and Beal took their usual seats at the podium after the game. They always look somewhat numb in this position, when a season comes to a slamming halt short of the conference finals, short of the Larry O’Brien trophy which sits in a photograph in Wall’s home locker.
“I don’t even know,” Beal said when asked for his season-ending thoughts.
“It’s not a satisfying season to me,” Wall said.
When they were walking off the floor after the final horn, listening to the home cheers and watching the Celtics beam, Boston’s public address announcer pushed on the Wizards’ wound.
“Tickets for the Eastern Conference Finals are on sale now!”
The loss kept 1979 intact. It allowed 1998 to remain the sorrowful line of demarcation. The Wizards are still not there yet.
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