In his “Coach’s Corner” bit after the first quarter of last night’s Game 4 between the Celtics and the Wizards, Boston coach Brad Stevens explained to TNT’s David Aldridge how his team had shrugged off an early Washington run to end the period leading 24-20. “Even when it was 8-0 them,” he said, “we were playing way better. Defensively, I thought our first possession was outstanding. And then offensively we’ve gotten pretty good looks, we just have to knock ‘em in.”
And while the bit about “playing way better” during the opposing team’s 8-0 run is maybe a little bit of an overstatement—making shots also is a thing you can do well or poorly—broadly, Stevens was right. The Celtics, who’d trailed at the end of each previous first quarter in the series, were doing good stuff. Eight of the Wizards’ first nine shot attempts were tightly contested; they just happened to make four of them, and to rebound two of their own misses. At the other end of the floor, the Celtics were doing smart stuff to spring mighty mite Isaiah Thomas free for cleaner looks than he got while laboring to a mere 13 points in Game 3.
Sometimes they screened for him way out far beyond the three-point line, where Marcin Gortat looked like he was standing in a mud pit while trying to contain Thomas on the switch:
Other times they put him and whoever Markieff Morris was guarding in actions together and trusted Morris to confuse himself, like so:
As you’ll have noticed, Thomas made all three of those three-pointers—the best possible sign for the Celtics, who more than any other remaining playoff team rely on their star player’s individual shot-making brilliance for basically all their scoring firepower.
Meanwhile, Thomas’s counterpart, John Wall, missed all five of his shot attempts in the period and turned the ball over twice. Only Otto Porter, who scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the quarter, kept the Wizards afloat. By the seven-minute mark of the second quarter, the Celtics had upped their lead to a dozen points and seemed to be cruising to a win that would turn the series’ outcome into a mere formality. The trend-lines were good, for Boston. And then John Wall kicked their damn asses!
A pair of free-throws with a little more than six minutes left in the half finally gave Wall his first points of the game. Then he drained a three from the left wing. Then he tossed in a floater. Then an 18-foot pull-up jumper. And then, the first real indication that John Wall was not merely present but well and truly on one, holy shit, this:
It was just a prelude! Get a load of what happened in the third quarter:
That’s ... well, a religious experience, first of all: By the end of it, there was a me-shaped hole in the ceiling of my living room. But also, it’s a 26-0 run, encompassing more than half the entire third quarter, turning a five-point Celtics lead into a 21-point deficit and rendering the entire fourth quarter superfluous. In it you see on glorious display all the reasons why ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote last night that “the [Cleveland] Cavaliers give no thought to anyone in the East beyond John Wall and Bradley Beal”: swarming, long-armed defense; explosive transition play; joyously unselfish passing; and at the heart of it, embodying all of the above, Wall, reaching a terrifying gear of furious individual all-court two-way brilliance that not more than perhaps two or three other players in all the NBA—none of whom play for the Celtics—can get to.
How good a job did the Celtics do of executing their offense and knocking in their good looks during this stretch? Who the hell cares! There was only one team on the court, as far as I could tell.
Afterward, in his shell-shocked postgame comments, Stevens, ever sensible and level-headed, pegged the loss to the six turnovers his Celtics committed during that nightmare run. “If you turn the ball over against these guys,” he said, “you’d prefer to, you know, drop-kick the ball into the stands, so that at least you can set your defense.”
Like his comments after the first quarter, this is both broadly correct—if the Celtics had not committed six turnovers in one six-minute stretch of the third quarter, the Wizards almost certainly would not have gone on a decisive 26-0 run that turned a close game into a blowout loss—and infused with a good coach’s necessary optimism. So, by necessity, because it is the only way a coach can look at it, the Celtics committed those six turnovers—and got out-rebounded 45-31, and have been comprehensively outplayed throughout the series so far, including in the two games they won—because of what they did or didn’t do, and not because the other team has a guy on it who’s capable of making hash of even the sharpest execution the Celtics can muster.
Maybe this outlook is the right one! Boston is the higher seed for a reason, of course. Over 82 regular-season games the Celtics were more consistently good than the Wizards; now, all they have to do is be more consistently good over what has become a best-of-three series in which they’ll host two of the three games. The likeliest outcome has the Boston Celtics doing what they’ve done all year—being sharper than the Washington Wizards—and playing in the Eastern Conference Finals next week.
On the other hand...
...that’s good defense!