One of the best rivalries during the 2016-17 NBA season will be settled once and for all on Monday night when the Celtics host the Wizards in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Wizards will be playing their first Game 7 since 1979, while the Celtics will be looking to improve upon a long successful franchise history in Game 7s (21-8). Here’s a look at seven keys to the matchup.
1. Can the Celtics stay competitive on the glass?
The Wizards and Celtics are both shooting 46.2 percent from the field in the series, but Washington holds a sizable edge on the glass (44 to 38 in rebounds per game). That advantage stems largely from Marcin Gortat, who has grabbed nearly five offensive rebounds per game (11.7/G overall) in the matchup. The Celtics will never be expected to out-rebound the opposition with this roster, but they can’t afford to gift Washington countless second chance opportunities. Periodic lapses on the glass have been costly for the Green all series long, and Boston’s perimeter players will need to stay focused on gang rebounding all 48 minutes. If the Celtics can stay within five rebounds of Washington, history indicates that will give them a chance (5-0 vs. Wizards this season when they stay within that margin).
2. Will Isaiah Thomas be a scorer or facilitator?
Outside of an extraordinary 50-point performance in Game 2, Isaiah Thomas has struggled finding a rhythm at times against a trapping Wizards defense. You can bet that Scott Brooks won’t want to let the All-Star guard beat him in Game 7, so the responsibility will be on Thomas to break through multiple Washington defenders and find open teammates. It worked to perfection in Game 5 when Thomas dished out 9 assists while Avery Bradley went for a postseason career-high with 29 points. In Game 6, Thomas forced the issue at times, particularly in the first three quarters (he finished 8-of-24 from field). While the temptation will be there to shoot for another 50 -performance, the C’s will probably benefit more from Isaiah embracing a healthy mix between distributing and scoring.
3. Can the Celtics slow down John Wall?
For one half in Game 6, the Celtics achieved this goal. Wall was an ugly 1-of-9 from the field before intermission, scoring a mere three points as the Celtics managed to take an early lead despite an atrocious offensive half. That slump was short lived however, as the 6-foot-4 point guard erupted for 23 points in the second half, keeping his team in the game and the series. In fact, Wall, Bradley Beal and Markieff Morris were the only three players to score for Washington in the second half of the win. All season long Wall has been the catalyst of the Wizards’ offensive attack, and it’s hard to envision the visitors overcoming a subpar night from Wall in a road Game 7. If the Celtics can keep him out of transition and force jumpers in the halfcourt, their odds of advancing increase considerably.
4. Will Al Horford stay hot?
The biggest free agent signing in Celtics history has been playing up to his contract all postseason long, particularly on the offensive end. Horford leads both teams in field goal and 3-point percentage, shooting a scorching hot 68 percent from the field and 57 percent from beyond the arc. Part of that efficiency has been thanks to wise shot selection (only 10.2 attempts per game), but the versatile big man has given the Wizards trouble all series long from wherever he squares up on the floor. The Wizards haven’t been able to slow the C’s offense all year long at the Garden, and it’s hard to envision it happening Monday if Horford stays in rhythm.
5. Can the supporting casts hit their open looks?
While Wall and Thomas get the headlines, the odds are that Game 7 will come down to the supporting casts surrounding each All-Star. For the Celtics, the pressure will fall on Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. Both players will see plenty of open looks from the perimeter, shots that Bradley has taken advantage of in the last two games with a pair of 25-plus point performances. If both are connecting early, that will open the floor even more for Thomas. Meanwhile, the Wizards have struggled with the 3-ball of late (32.4 percent in series) as Otto Porter Jr. (4-of-19) and Beal (26 percent) have not been reliable weapons over the first six games. Will they be able to snap out of their funks and take some of scoring pressure off Wall?
6. How short of a leash will Brad Stevens and Scott Brooks have with their benches?
Washington’s bench depth has been the team’s biggest flaw all year long, so it will be a challenge for Scott Brooks to turn to them with confidence in a hostile Game 7 environment. Bojan Bogdanovic is capable of hitting shots at the Garden, but all five Wizards in the bench rotation have the lowest net ratings on the team this series. Wall and Beal are nearly certain to play 40-plus minutes, but will Brooks lean more on his frontcourt in the do-or-die situation? Unlike Brooks, Stevens can confidently expect his bench to be productive in Game 7 in the friendly confines of the TD Garden. He’s been leaning on his youngsters (Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown) in the second half of the series, but will he trust them to play through mistakes with their season on the line? It’s the first Game 7 of Brad Stevens’ career, and with two full days of rest for his roster, it will be interesting to see how much rope he gives his a second unit that has been up and down all year long.
7. Will the Garden crowd rattle the Wizards?
An unlikely rivalry has blossomed between the two squads over the last couple seasons and the TD Garden crowd has tried to take advantage of that bad blood during this series. Between expletive-laden chants towards Kelly Oubre and persistent booing for the rest of the Washington lineup, the stage has been set for a hostile Game 7 crowd at the Garden. The Wizards have not won a game at the Garden since April 2014, so they will need to drown out the noise if they want to put an end to that streak and become the first visiting team to win a Game 7 at the Garden since Orlando in 2009.