An anticipated playoff matchup between two of the NBA’s top emerging teams will come to fruition when the Celtics and Wizards open up Game 1 of the Eastern Semifinals on Sunday afternoon. It should be a good one, too. Each side is led by two of the league’s more exciting guards in Isaiah Thomas and John Wall. Both squads have also been been waiting a few years for a breakthrough with their current cohorts. Plus, it helps that their recent regular season matchups have been noticeably feisty.
Boston regained their form following two surprising home losses to open their series against the eighth-seeded Bulls. The most noticeable difference came on the defensive end, as the Celtics went from allowing close to 118 points per 100 possessions in Games 1 & 2 to just 100 in the final four games. They also got help from numerous different sources outside of Isaiah. While Boston’s lone All-Star still averaged 23 points per game, he only scored 20.1% of Boston’s points (down from close to 27% during the regular season) while supporting players like Gerald Green and Kelly Olynk chipped in multiple double-digit scoring performances in the Celtics’ four victories.
The issue for Boston, though, is that the Wizards present more challenges than the Bulls. Rajon Rondo wrecked havoc in Chicago’s first two upset wins before suffering a thumb injury (and as an aside, the Bulls would have at least taken things to a seventh game had he stayed healthy). Now the Celtics must deal with John Wall. The former number one-pick is coming off the best statistical year of his career, setting career highs in points (23.1) and assists (10.7) per game. He also just put up Russell Westbrook-esque numbers in Washington’s first round win over Atlanta (29.5 PPG, 10.3 APG). And he did it efficiently, shooting over 50% from the field and over 47% from downtown. Brad Stevens surely won’t want Thomas, who finished dead last among 91 qualified point guards in Defensive Real Plus/Minus, shouldering too much defensive responsibility on one of the game’s best point guards, meaning Avery Bradley and/or Marcus Smart should be the main guys assigned with stopping Washington’s go-to playmaker. However, that could then create more opportunities for Bradley Beal, a more-than-capable scorer who dropped over 30 points in three of the Wizards’ first round games.
Not only will Boston be hard-pressed to slow down Wall and Beal, but they have major concerns underneath. I noted in my Celtics playoff preview that they struggle to rebound and defend the paint. This certainly rang true last series. Boston was dominated on the boards early, particularly in Game 1 when Chicago held a 65-44 rebounding edge. Plus, Robin Lopez, of all people, looked like an All-Star for some of that series. Robin Lopez. Luckily the Wizards don’t have any stud big men, but Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat are even more formidable than Lopez–they each averaged more points and rebounders in the regular season than the Chicago center. Just as controlling the rebounding battle became crucial in their four wins over Chicago, containing Morris, Gortat and company is likely to be one of the main keys to this series as well.
Expecting the Celtics to simply replicate what they did in their four impressive victories over Chicago isn’t realistic, though. Washington won’t let that happen as easily. That’s why the Wizards are one of the more likely teams in recent memory to upset a one-seed in the second round.
So will the Wizards pull the upset?
All of this being said…I’m still taking Boston. Yeah, you probably know why: I’m kind of a homer when it comes to my Boston teams.
But here’s the deal: The same things I’ve been saying about the Celtics over the past few months, and the same rationale for why I picked them to reach the Eastern Finals before the playoffs, remain true. They’re strong on both ends of the floor. Boston ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency this season and has one of the NBA’s more dynamic offensive players in Thomas. Their perimeter defense is also particularly strong: The Celtics held opposing teams to the second lowest three-point percentage this past regular season. They’re also deep, and if Al Horford (15.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 6.5 APG against the Bulls) can continue to be a commanding offensive presence with help from the likes of Bradley and Green, than the Wizards will have more than just Isaiah to slow down. And lastly, they’re well-coached. Credit to Brad Stevens for temporarily silencing all doubters by guiding the Celtics of that 0-2 hole. He’s finally living up to his billing as one of the better coaches in the NBA.
Even though I’m worried about Wall being the most impactful player in the series as well as Boston’s ability to hold their own in the paint, I think greater depth, better coaching, and even a little bit of home-court advantage will be enough to tip the series in Boston’s favor. Celtics in Seven.
Other predictions for the rest of the Conference Semifinals, while I’m at it.
Cleveland over Toronto in Six
As evidenced by their four-game sweep of Indiana, it looks like the Cavaliers’ lackluster second-half wasn’t much of a concern. They’re now rested heading into this Toronto series. How will the Raptors slow down LeBron after struggling to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo last round? In short, they won’t.
Golden State Los Angeles/Utah in Five
Doesn’t matter who they end up playing. Golden State will coast.
Houston over San Antonio in Six
Will Kawhi be able to guard Harden and carry the Spurs’ offense? To an extent, yes. But it won’t be enough to lead San Antonio past the Rockets. Harden’s surrounded by other good shooters, and I think the Spurs have less depth–particularly on the offensive end of the floor–than in past years to match Houston’s pace. Their offensive firepower will be a little too much for San Antonio.