On a hot July afternoon it seemed like the Washington Wizards were bursting onto the scene, ready to take a swipe at the Celtics’ dreams of a marquee free agent. Al Horford’s willingness to return to Atlanta had wavered in the face of financial disagreement. It was clear he was looking for a new situation to contend in and the pitches from Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens amassed enough appeal to touch pen to paper. A sigh of relief on one side, reorganization on the others.
Washington got involved as one of four finalists along with Boston for Horford. Back then, the Celtics’ dreams of Kevin Durant were still a possibility, but Washington’s vision of K.D. returning to his hometown that spanned back years had finally fizzled. Washington wasn’t a Durant finalist, and soon after, they lost Horford, too.
That was an early hint that the Celtics and Wizards would be intertwined in the complexion of the Eastern Conference this year.
When the Wizards traipsed into the TD Garden on January 11 they weren’t in that conversation. They were a team lucky to be hovering around .500 after falling on their faces out of the gate, a full 4.5 games behind Boston. The Celts were on a different echelon in terms of expectations and it played out on the court.
John Wall struggled to catch the eyes of anyone in the crowd, shooting 4-of-21 as Isaiah Thomas was on his world-beater run of scoring that if sustained would have topped any single Celtics season. He dropped 38 points in 38 minutes, the Celts routed Washington 117-108, but something was brewing behind the numbers.
Bradley Beal, a perennially talented and injured off-ball guard with a stroke to match anybody in basketball, had himself an impressive night with 35 points. He drew the dreaded physical defense of Marcus Smart and still had no issue scoring in the game. It caught Mike Gorman’s attention as he chirped at Boston, and got wrapped up underneath the basket with Smart at one point.
Beal went on to have the best season of his career, shooting 48% from the field, 40% from three and 83% from the charity stripe.
Three quarters later, we all know what happened. The nose poke that shook up the season.
Something spicy sparked in both teams that night. They met weeks later in D.C., where the Wiz were an astounding 30-11 this year, and they pulled a ridiculous funeral attire stunt that appeared to be the crusade of Wall. By that point they labeled the Celts “dirty,” despite Wall being the one who was ejected in the first bout.
Wizards’ John Wall ejected for Flagrant 2 foul on Celtics’ Marcus Smart. Appeared to pull him down by the head/shoulders pic.twitter.com/M6SSQqXR2N— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) November 10, 2016
If anything, a war of words was on after their 123-108 win. They were now 2.5 back of the C’s, won 24 of their next 37 games. They were the NBA’s most surprising upper-level playoff team, and charged through the first round on the shoulders off a monstrous effort by Wall over the Hawks, the former east four-seed.
Boston wasn’t without its own noise in the first round either. Fred Hoiberg questioned Thomas’ ball-handling, Jimmy Butler essentially called Smart a fake tough guy, and then the hot water shut off on Chicago after Game 5 in the TD Garden. This is the new-era of what was once Ron Artest full-blown brawls in the crowd, fitted with historic suspensions for swinging haymakers, but it’s no less entertaining.
This was what I asked for on my birthday back in March. A full Wizards-Celts frontal. It’s finally here thanks to the Celts’ ascension to the highly touted one seed. This is the series we needed and it begins today at 1 p.m. Sunday.
For what could very well be seven intense games, we get it all: Crowder’s intensity vs. Markieff Morris, who already had a series-long beef with Paul Millsap before this, Avery Bradley and Smart get to take on one of the more lethal backcourts in basketball (check out Jared Weiss’ preview of the back court matchup), and Marcin Gortat presents another low-post, rebounding challenge for Boston.
Washington is a dominant home team, but under .500 on the road. The Celts found their most explosive lineup, both for the starters and bench, through the course of the Chicago series. Whether they stick with the Gerald Green magic lineup or not remains to be seen, but with Al Horford playing with an offensive rating of 141 it may be wise to stay the course. It’s not broke.
Both teams have steadily risen and butted heads all year long, now with a chance for tensions to fester this could become the NBA’s hottest rivalry. Many have a problem with “buddy-ball,” but there doesn’t appear to be a friendship across these locker rooms.
It’s going to be beautiful. This is the first second-round trip for the Celts since 2012, which was the start of 14 straight bitter duels between the 76ers and Heat for that squad. This is where the fun gets started. Dirty or clean, this series will have everything, and hopefully will breed something new for the NBA: a well-molded rivalry.