Channeling his inner Norman Dale, the coach in “Hoosiers” who made his awestruck small-town crew measure the height of the basket before the state championship, Scott Brooks laid out simple facts Tuesday.
The Wizards’ coach was rationalizing how difficult it will be for Washington to win Game 5 Wednesday night. Brooks acknowledged the challenge before making sure not to make it disproportional. After all, the Wizards are tied 2-2 with the top-seeded Celtics in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal, a series in which Washington believes it should have won all four games.
Fifth games in a tied series carry enormous influence. If the home team wins, it will also win the series 91.8 percent of the time. If the road team wins, it wins the series 71.7 percent of the time. Whichever team wins Game 5 of an NBA series tied 2-2, wins 84.4 percent of the time. Add to that Washington’s undefeated home record this postseason, and the picture is clear.
Washington went through a similar circumstance the last time it was in the playoffs. Its semifinal series with the then-top-seeded Atlanta Hawks entered the fifth game tied. A trench war ended when Al Horford — the man who spurned the Wizards this offseason and instead is the starting center for the Celtics — grabbed a rebound and scored with 1.9 seconds to play. Atlanta won, 82-81, because of the play. It was able to hang on in Game 6 when Paul Pierce’s corner 3-pointer was an anguished half-second too late. Horford’s rebound proved as significant a single-play as there was in that series. It again stopped John Wall and Bradley Beal from advancing to the conference finals. It again stalled District sports progress in that all-too-familiar almost way.
“That changed the momentum,” Otto Porter said Tuesday. “We had an opportunity to get a game on the road. That would have been huge for us. Unfortunately, he just made the better play. The ball bounced right to him.
“Game 5s — especially when the series is tied, 2-2, both teams are looking to get that ‘W’. This Game 5 is about to be a real good one.”
Brooks wasn’t around then. That instead was Washington’s second and last playoff appearance under Randy Wittman. Brooks has broken through the semifinal level to make it to the NBA Finals once and conference finals three times with Oklahoma City. He’s trying to do the same in his first season in Washington.
Brooks has not spoken with the same assuredness as his players that Washington should have won twice in Boston already. Game 1 brought a 3-point bombardment from the Celtics that has not been seen since. Washington also had an emphatic chance to take Game 2 with multiple leads and two last-second shot attempts by its best players. But, he is pleasantly suggestive about the possibility.
“We were close, but you have to be able to win the game,” Brooks said.
Wall said after Game 4 in Washington that he thought the Wizards were in control of the series. Tuesday, he reaffirmed that stance when explaining that the Wizards did not shoot well or play great defense, yet had double-digit leads in both road games.
“It’s an important game for those guys,” Wall said. “It’s an important game for both of us, but more important for those guys going back home. They understand if we get an opportunity to win there, we get a chance to close it out here. They’re going to come out and be aggressive, play better than they did here and their fans are going to be amazing.”
Kelly Oubre Jr. will hear from those folks. Washington’s spirited small forward will return Wednesday from his one-game suspension that was a result of his bull charge into Boston’s Kelly Olynyk in Game 3. Brooks recommended that Oubre wear ear plugs.
The Wizards fared well without him. Both home games were blowouts. The Wizards have carried double-digit leads in every game. Those evaporated in Boston. They expanded in Washington. Such is the common boost of geography.
Role player results also tend to rise or fade based on game location. In Washington, Bojan Bogdanovic more than tripled his scoring as compared to the games in Boston. Porter started Game 3 7-for-7 from the field. He is proving to be a significant influence on the series.
“Whenever he score in the paint and he’s comfortable like [Porter] was, it’s a tough night,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said before Game 4. “When they have Bogdanovic and Porter scoring, in addition to Beal and Wall, that’s a tough group to guard. [Porter] is a really good player. He’s continued to get better. I like his story because of the fact he didn’t play much as a rookie and kept working at it and now’s become a really tough guy to stop.”
In 2015, Horford was merely a decoy on the 3-point line. He was not yet the 3-point shooting threat he is now — he took 36 3-pointers that season and 242 this season — so, he stood on the left wing as an emergency option for the action taking place on the right side of the floor.
“I wasn’t supposed to be involved in the play at all,” Horford said then. “When I saw the ball go up, I just ran in there.”
Washington’s core group remembers that simplistic soul-crushing. It helped lead them to yet another locker clean out day before they thought the playoffs should be over. It cemented their spot among the city’s burgeoning bunch of teams that didn’t get it done. They know Wednesday presents a Game 7 of sorts in Game 5. They want control this time.
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