NBA playoffs 2017: Wizards, Celtics renew rivalry with much more on the line

The backstory

Even as the Celtics and Wizards had their struggles in their opening-round series, most NBA fans had to be holding out hope that the two would meet in the second round. Of all the matchups in the East, Boston-Washington is the one with the most potential for fireworks, going back a year to when the Boston-Washington beef began with a series of scuffles, including when guard Marcus Smart caught Wizards star Bradley Beal with an elbow and broke his nose.

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That paved the way for a four-game season series marked by some notable absurdities. In January, the Wizards all wore black in the run-up to their game against the Celtics, claiming the garb represented a “funeral” for the Celtics. There was also a postgame run-in between Celtics forward Jae Crowder and Wizards guard John Wall, which prompted Boston police to beef up its presence in the hallway that connects the two locker rooms.

There’s a lot of silliness in all of this, of course, and the Celtics were able to get through the first round under the cloud of something more serious — the death of star guard Isaiah Thomas’ sister just before the start of the postseason. Thomas had some gutsy showings in the first round, but his numbers obviously dipped (23 points, 43 percent shooting).

Still, playoff series tend to get chippy by the third or fourth game, but for Washington and Boston, there should be tension right out the gate. The difference here is the rivalry means something this time.

The key player

What’s gotten into John Wall, anyway? We are accustomed to Wall as an ultra-quick ballhandler capable of barreling to the basket through a sea of defenders, but Wall’s weak spot — perimeter shooting — has been a strength in the postseason. He shot 47.4 percent from behind the 3-point line in six games against Atlanta, averaging 29.5 points and 10.3 assists. He has been just as good with his midrange game, making nearly 50 percent from 16 feet out to the 3-point line.

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This is a big departure for Wall, who has typically struggled in the postseason. In his two previous playoff stints, totaling 18 games, Wall averaged 16.7 points and shot 37.6 percent from the field, 20.4 percent from the 3-point line. He appears to have put those struggles behind him, and has been one of the most productive postseason guards when it comes to running the pick-and-roll (12.3 points per game from the play, fifth in the league).

That is a big challenge for the Celtics, who will throw a combination of Avery Bradley and Smart at Wall, who struggled against Boston in the four regular-season games (17.8 points, 37.3 percent shooting, 15.4 from the 3-point line). Wall will attract plenty of defensive attention, but Boston will have to find ways to recover for help on Beal (22.0 points, 47.8 percent 3-point shooting) and Otto Porter (17.0 points, 67.4 percent shooting), because each was especially strong against the Celtics this season.

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The big number

12.7 — That was the number of points allowed per game by the Celtics in transition in Round 1, a pretty stellar shutdown of the fast break. That came in large part because of the hand injury suffered by Bulls point guard Rajon Rondo, which sapped the Bulls’ running game. But Boston was generally good against the break, allowing the Bulls a mere 0.9 points per possession in transition. During the regular season, the Celtics allowed 1.07 points per possession, ninth in the league against the break.

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They’ll need to summon that defensive mindset against the Wizards, who stormed the Hawks in the fast break in their series. Washington averaged 25.2 points per game out of transition, most of any team in the playoffs, and their efficiency — 1.15 points per possession — was well above their season average. The Wizards were a good running team in the regular season (20.3 points per game in transition, fourth in the NBA), but they’ve been exceptional in the playoffs.

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The prediction

We’ve come this far without mentioning the Wizards’ unsightly road record: 19-22. Washington was actually a pretty good road team beginning with a win in New York on January 19 — the Wizards were 15-9 on the road to close the year. They did lose two out of the three games in Atlanta, and their road woes could come up again in this series, especially with the bench’s struggle to play away from home. The Celtics have more depth and the home-court edge. Both will be factors here. Celtics in 7.

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