When the Washington Wizards have pulled off wins this season, it has usually been because of their offense.
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray recently suggested Washington “might be the hardest playing team in the league,” after the Wizards raced up and down the floor all night to get the victory.
Rarely have the Wizards won with defense — something they did Monday night.
Throughout Washington’s win, the Wizards rotated on defense. They got back in transition. They even had success running a 2-3 zone, a scheme that Washington deploys more than other any team in the league, according to Synergy Sports.
They again beat one of the top teams in the NBA despite missing key players. Bradley Beal, for instance, was held out his third straight game with right leg soreness.
In a span of the week, the Wizards have now beaten the Miami Heat, Nuggets and Celtics — three of the league’s top teams. But this one was different, guard Ish Smith said.
“I don’t think we’ve won a game like this,” said Smith, who had a team-high 27 points. “Everyone of the games we’ve won against the top tier teams have been 115, 120, 125. Tonight was a tribute to our defense.”
For a change, the Wizards weren’t the only team undermanned. Before the game, Boston announced star point guard Kemba Walker, who averages a team-high 22.5 points per game, was out with an illness.
Without Walker, the Celtics struggled from the opening quarter. Guard Jaylen Brown got to the rim, but couldn’t convert. Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum missed each of their shots, and without a true point guard on the floor, the Celtics turned the ball over six times.
By the end of first, with the Wizards leading 26-17, Washington held Boston to just 7 of 23 shooting. Holding an opponent to 17 points to start the game was a season-best for the Wizards, as well.
The Wizards, too, started clicking offensively in the second. Specifically, the speed of Washington’s guards gave Boston fits. Facing his former team, Isaiah Thomas zipped to the rim and around screens to score 11 points. Smith, coming off a career-best 32 points against the Nuggets on Saturday, did the same. Jordan McRae added another 11 points on 14 shots.
Washington was still able to be successful on offense without Beal, who has missed five of the last six games. It scored points without sharpshooter Davis Bertans and rookie Rui Hachimura.
The Wizards even withstood another injury Monday — this time to two-way forward Garrison Mathews, who suffered an ankle sprain in the second quarter and did not return.
At halftime, the Wizards led 51-40 — holding the Celtics to their second-fewest points in a first half all season.
“I love the spirit we’re playing,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “We just got to continue to do this and get better and grow and learn how to keep continue to do this.”
In the second half, the Wizards withstood a push from the Celtics. Boston cut into the deficit, trailing by as few as two (74-72) at the end of the third. After shooting 29.2% through the first two quarters, the Celtics made 11 of their 23 attempts in the third.
Washington also got careless. It committed eight turnovers, including one in which Troy Brown was called for a five-second violation for failing to throw the ball inbounds.
But the Wizards recovered in the fourth. Smith came through with back-to-back clutch shots to make it 84-80. Issac Bonga, making the start over recently waived Jonathan Williams, extended his arm and made the layup to make it 90-83. Down the stretch, Smith continued to take over, making his way to the middle of the paint and nailing shots from the mid-range.
Smith even received “MVP” chants when at the line with three minutes left. The cheers were enough to silence the Celtics‘ vocal supporters who had overtaken the majority of seats at Capital One Arena.
“If it were a two-game season,” Brooks said, “I would have to agree with the crowd: MVP.”
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