BOSTON — Trash talk flowed. A minor dust-up occurred. One Boston Celtics fan dressed like a Grim Reaper, which might have been overly morbid but, then again, the Washington Wizards wore funeral attire to their previous game against the Celtics.
Regardless of whether you want to hand out the rivalry label (I vote no), the spicy Eastern Conference matchup has grown into fascinating television, with excessive physicality, wonderful backcourt matchups and more than enough obvious distaste to interest the casual fan.
“Both teams, you could say we don’t like each other a little bit. There’s probably a little bitterness in there, but it’s a good old-fashioned battle,” said Jae Crowder, who believes a Celtics-Wizards playoff series would be compelling theater. “It’d be a great one. I’m sure it’d be a great playoff battle between these two teams.”
If the two teams meet again, they will do so in the postseason — and the series will likely open in Boston, thanks to the Celtcs’ important 110-102 victory Monday night. How big was the win? With it, the Celtics split the season series with Washington; moved 2.5 games ahead of Washington in the standings; positioned themselves well to claim the head-to-head tiebreaker between the two teams; and bolstered their chances of catching the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed. With eight of their final 11 games at home — and six more games against teams currently out of the playoff picture — the Celtics own a 43-percent chance of earning homecourt throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, according to the latest projections from FiveThirtyEight.com.
“It was a playoff game,” said Isaiah Thomas, who scored 25 points in his return from a two-game absence. “We know we might get them in the playoffs this year. And we know what was at stake.”
“I like those type of games,” Thomas added. “We knew it was going to be like that. Those guys don’t like us, we don’t like them. That’s what it is.”
For nearly three quarters against Washington, the Celtics showed what they can be. Avery Bradley (“you could tell in his eyes that he wanted this game,” said Thomas) poured in shots, lobbed an alley-oop to Amir Johnson, grabbed a heap of rebounds and still found the energy to chase Bradley Beal. Crowder racked up hustle plays, knocked down outside shots, and continued to act like a big man on the glass. With Thomas back, the starters poured goblets of fire on top of the Wizards, compiling an outrageous 145.6 offensive rating over 17 minutes together, according to NBA.com.
“Obviously, everybody knows Isaiah being back just makes everything easier for all of us,” said Al Horford, who finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal.
The Celtics limited John Wall, held Beal to seven points after the first quarter, and racked up 20 offensive rebounds — their best performance in that category since March 30, 2008. Before allowing Washington to creep back into the game during the fourth quarter, the Celtics built a 20-point lead.
For all they have accomplished so far this season, they also seem curious about whether they can lift themselves to another level.
“I think that’s the big question,” said Horford. “We do it at times. It’s just something that we’ve been talking about – just be more consistent. Tonight we did it for a lot of the time. We had some slippage, but we’re figuring it out.”
“I think the thing that has probably bothered me about our play of recent is that we just have too many moments of casual basketball,” added head coach Brad Stevens. “And that’s going to get you beat on more times than not. We’ve got to correct those moments, take them completely out of the game, if we want to be worth a darn after the last 11 games.”
That seems harsh for a young team on pace for 52 wins, but the Celtics have risen and fallen in key areas this season. Their offense hummed early. Their defense has ranked third after the All-Star break. Their starting lineup has crushed opponents lately. Maybe they just need to stay healthy — they are now 22-7 with their normal starting lineup — but they haven’t always thrived simultaneously at both ends of the court. Every time they look poised for a surge, another key contributor has gone down with an injury.
Wanting more, Horford, before leaving the locker room, urged his teammates to treat the rest of the regular season as a way to build momentum for the playoffs.
“We’ve learned that these leads will go away quickly,” Horford said. “We just have to make sure that we play the right way all the time, building those habits. And that’s what I mean. By the time we get to the postseason we want to make sure that we’re just playing the right way.”
Horford knows the Celtics are still exploring what they can become, but feels the urgency — and real opportunity — now. The Wizards and Toronto Raptors loom behind them and LeBron James has stood in the way for what seems like forever, but the Celtics are bracing for the postseason and wondering exactly how much they can achieve.