Plenty of songs blare before Celtics games – NBA games, for that matter – but none felt as fitting as Drake’s “Nonstop. before Sunday night’s matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards. The tune literally begins with the words “I just flipped a switch,” undoubtedly an idea both of these teams are familiar with of late; Washington has turned things on, while Boston, the opposite.
Albeit slowly, it feels like the latter’s switch is being slowly flipped back in the other direction. With a 111-110 Celtics win tonight, the team has its first official winning streak since winning two in a row against the Cavaliers and Bulls in late January. Okay, so it’s (again) merely a two-game streak, but by definition, it is, indeed a streak, and one that the Celtics have desperately needed. Having lost five of their last eight, winning two straight – one against a red-hot Washington team that had won seven of eight heading into tonight (including a 104-91 drubbing of the Celtics on Valentine’s Day) – has to have this team feeling as though the tides are shifting as they near the All-Star break.
On the heels of an early 7-0 run, Mike Gorman noted that it’s been a long time since the team got off to a quick start. No matter how a team fares in the end, comments like those feel roughly as egregious as when someone in your grade school class asked the forgetful teacher why she hadn’t yet asked for your homework. And given how the first quarter began to turn sour following Gorman’s comment, I’ll stand by the analogy; it’s how I felt for a minute there.
The Wizards didn’t take long to inch their way back into the game following a few early uncharacteristic misses, particularly from Bradley Beal. It forced other Wizards to get involved, a venture they’d cash in on. Thanks to a few triples from Davis Bertans and way too many free throws – Washington attempted 16 free throws in the quarter, making 13, juxtaposed with 17 field goal attempts and six buckets – what was a 14-4 game was suddenly much tighter. Bradley Beal got himself involved, both from the field and at the line, and after 12 minutes, Boston led by a measly five, 33-28.
And nothing really changed in the second; the score increased, and those who took the under whimpered, but both sides kept the pace they’d dictated in the first. There wasn’t much pace to that pace, though, as much of the contest took place at the free-throw line. Save a highlight slam from Jayson Tatum over Robin Lopez, who subsequently turned into a meandering corpse, the game remained a plodding one, with a healthy bit of scoring, but very little to write home about.
Well, except for Bradley Beal, who – you guessed it – flipped his personal switch, neglecting the line he frequented in the first for 13 second-quarter points, 11 of which came from the field. He’s not particularly the player I hoped to be writing home about, but what else was I to expect from the league’s leading scorer. At the halfway point, he definitively did pace the Wizards, as they kept the game within five; Boston entered the locker room with a 60-55 lead. Tatum led the Celtics with 16 after two; Beal led Washington with 24.
This, in particular, is where you really miss the likes of Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, who sat tonight with a sore left knee: without their two best defenders, Boston was forced to assign at least one significantly lesser defender to either Russell Westbrook or Beal. Despite some early hiccups, the de facto scorers and offensive playmakers for Washington are bound to cash in offensively, given their bounty of opportunities and time with the ball.
Westbrook ranks seventh in the league in touches per game (90.1) per NBA.com, and though Beal (25th, 75.3) might bring the ball up less often, he cashes in at a rate per touch (0.436) that ranks seventh among players that play at least 25 minutes per game. Factoring in the fact that Beal also attempts a league-most 23.9 shots per game on 48.3-percent shooting, it’s not too farfetched to assume that either Smart or Brown might’ve made his job a bit harder.
Now, I’ll be frank, I often aim to pretend as though I understand things even when I don’t; it’s a reflexive trait, born out of perpetual embarrassment and insecurity. But even I don’t know how to explain what happened in the third quarter. Bradley Beal scored a bunch – sure. Kemba Walker crossed over in front of his body roughly 123 times – natural. Robin Lopez flopped himself into oblivion, which rivaled getting yammed on into an alternate oblivion in the second quarter in terms of humiliation – that’s nothing new.
Beyond that, I’ve got nothing. It was about the ugliest quarter of basketball I’ve seen since I coached a group of six-year-olds to a 2-10 season a few winters ago. I maintain that it wasn’t my fault, but their inability to finish bunny layups. I have a feeling both coaches feel the same way about their team’s performances in the third period. If you missed it, you actually didn’t miss much of anything. It ended on a much more positive note than it began, but the teams combined to shoot 16 of 44. It felt like watching one of Adam Sandler’s Netflix films: sure, it was something to watch, but was it worth the unbearable pain, which I’m now convinced is an ulcer?
Nevertheless, the chaos made for an entertaining game, as Washington cut Boston’s lead to 79-76 heading into the fourth, a margin that didn’t take Washington long to flip in their favor. Within four minutes, the Wizards had taken their first lead of the game and paced – there’s that word again – by ball movement from the low post out to either a Westbrook or a Beal, they kept a slim lead for much of the first six minutes of the quarter. And even when Boston looked to be hinting at a slight run – Daniel Theis nailed two-straight jumpers from the elbow to tie the game; Kemba Walker, Brian Scalabrine’s words, looked to be “officially back” –Beal elected to deny any and all momentum, just by being himself. It helps when all that requires is scoring at a historic rate, shooting above 50 percent on a team that requires you to shoot ~30 shots per game. He scored 11 in the fourth; simply put, the night felt like it always going to belong to him.
Inside 60 seconds, trailing 110-107, Scalabrine noted that all Boston needed to do was defend, and they’d have a chance. Fair enough; it was just a shock, given the course of the game, that the Celtics did exactly that. Jayson Tatum may have had the space to take a three off a pass from Theis with about 15 seconds remaining, but passed it up, head faked, and drove to the rim for a two-point bucket, cutting the lead to one.
Beal received the ensuing inbound pass, was immediately trapped, and slipped, which caused him to step out of bounds. After a lengthy review that made Mike Gorman turn purple with fury, Jayson Tatum inbounded, only to receive a pass in the post; he jabbed, drove, and finished an off-balance layup over Rui Hachimura. Boston led, 111-110, with just under five seconds left.
Lately, giving a team starring Beal the ball with five seconds remaining has felt akin to giving Tom Brady the football with merely a minute to work. But while you can rush two defenders at Brady and force him to scramble, he isn’t forced to dribble. When Beal received the final inbound pass, he was immediately trapped – yet again, a nice setup from Brad Stevens on a crucial out-of-bounds defensive possession – and forced to hoist up a desperation fadeaway. The shot hit the rim, but Beal wouldn’t add on to his game-high 46 points. Anything but pretty, the Celtics escaped with a win, 111-110. Jayson Tatum led the C’s with 31.
During the fourth quarter’s first timeout, “Going Bad” by Meek Mill featuring Drake headlined a remix that played over the PA. The lyrics, you ask?:
“When your back against the wall, and a bunch of ---- need you to go away… Still’ goin’ bad on ‘em anyway.”
Which, in a way, would’ve felt fitting, no matter which way the tide turned in tonight’s game. Had the Celtics lost, they would have, indeed, still been “goin’ bad,” or “playin’ bad,” if you will. But tonight, with their backs against the wall, they still went bad on ‘em anyway. I’m almost positive that Drake is using “bad” in a positive light there. Let’s say he is; after all, this is now an official win streak. Why parse the insignificant?
Next up, the Celtics will look to extend this short (but real) winning streak as they play host to the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. EST on TNT.