Bradley Beal could smile now when he remembered the haunting math. He first began to think about it after Game 2, when the Washington Wizards were down 0-2, lamenting leads lost and late shots missed in Boston as he went to the plane.
He, like most, knows the stacked NBA history. Teams that fall behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven series have never come back to win. It has happened in baseball and hockey. But, never in basketball. A team with homecourt advantage that goes up 3-0 in a series has won 103 of 103 times, providing a concrete fate. That made Thursday a Game 7, though it was just the third game of an increasingly combative series between the Boston Celtics and Wizards.
Washington’s 116-89 high-riding win Thursday night at Verizon Center cut the Celtics’ series lead to 2-1 and killed opportunity for a 3-0 worry. A chance to square the series comes Sunday night in Verizon Center. The matchup will last at least five games, meaning another week-plus of mutual disdain is in front of the teams.
“We’re similar in a lot of ways,” Beal said. “They’re real passionate about themselves, they’re passionate about their team. They’re young, we’re young. We’re two up-and-rising teams in the [Eastern Conference]. Right now, one of us has to die, essentially.”
For the first time in the series, Washington’s good start was not a foreboding indication of future failure.
Three times the Wizards have spent the first quarter unburdened and rolling to leads. Twice in Boston, the Celtics were calling timeout to stop an opening slide. Twice, it worked. Boston rallied to take the first two games of the series, putting Washington in an 0-2 hole before heading back to the District.
The nightlong gap in scoring didn’t quell the feistiness between the teams. Referees distributed eight technical fouls and three ejections. Washington players Kelly Oubre Jr. and Brandon Jennings were thrown out. Boston point guard Terry Rozier was also removed from the game. Each coach received a technical.
“They were handing out technicals left and right,” Beal said.
In between, Washington locked down Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, who finished with 13 points, his lowest total this season when playing at least 29 minutes. John Wall scored 24 points. Five other Washington players were in double figures.
The second quarter was heated. Oubre Jr, a flamboyant 21 year old in his second season, lost his temper when Boston center Kelly Olynyk set a hard, high and moving pick on him. Oubre hit the floor after the pick, then jumped up and sprinted at Olynyk, who had turned to argue with a referee. Oubre pushed Olynyk, who fell to the floor as if an anvil had fallen on his head. Oubre also appeared to brush the referee. He was assessed a flagrant-2 foul and ejected from the game. He is also at risk of being suspended for the next game. Oubre had departed before the locker room was opened to the media. Olynyk shrugged.
“Set a screen,” Olynyk said.
Meanwhile, their teammates continued to play basketball. Washington was able to carry a 23-point lead into halftime thanks to 15 points from Otto Porter and bench production that had been missing in the first two games. Wizards coach Scott Brooks vowed Thursday that he was going to play Bojan Bogdanovic more. Bogdanovic was the Wizards‘ first substitution of the night. He immediately began shooting 3-pointers. When he was done, he had scored 19 points.
Like the first two games, the Wizards provided another opening rampage. Washington used a 22-0 run in the first quarter to finish in front by 22 points after 12 minutes. Though, this gap did not slide away like the double-digit leads Washington assembled in Games 1 and 2.
“Kept our foot on the pedal,” Beal said. “This is a team, they can come back from 20 [down], they can come back from 30.”
Thomas was stifled. He missed both his shots of the quarter. Wall hounded Thomas in a way he had not in the first two games of the series. A game after scoring 53 points, Thomas had just one after the first quarter. Boston also turned the ball over six times, which is a swift path to deficit-building against Washington which piled in eight fastbreak points.
Afterward, Thomas explained that the Wizards put three guys on him. When he turned a corner or shook free of two guys in the first two games, he was able to find a route to a score. Thursday, those paths were blocked before and after he received the ball. Wall’s defensive uptick against Thomas was distinct. Beal also chased him throughout the evening.
“Don’t want him touching the ball, don’t want him to know what the ball feels like,” Beal said. “That’s how they play me. We want to do the same thing to their best scorer and just keep him out of the game as much as possible.”
Thomas assured that he will adjust. Boston coach Brad Stevens smiled at one point of his press conference and said, “I can say they played well all night,” while asked variations of the same question: Why was your team just throttled?
Sunday is the next tier of tension. A Boston win means it goes home with a chance to close out the series in a mere five games. A Washington win knots the series, cuts it to a best-of-three showdown, and bolsters the Wizards‘ hopes that the good work they did in Boston to open the series will mean something later. No one will be chums along the way.
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