Really bad start to the series. No other way to put it as a Wizards fan. The Wizards have been talking about the Conference Finals all year. They got the matchup they wanted with Boston. They are the more experienced team. They’ve been this far in the playoffs twice before with this core. And now we (fans) are two losses away from a summer of no draft pick and no cap space.
So what has happened? Isaiah Thomas went crazy scoring 86 points in the first two games. Bradley Beal, playoff hero in 2014 and ’15, has gone cold. Al Horford pulled out the old Bruce Bowen on Markieff Morris, who is the only true power forward in this series. And the Celtics have managed to combine the Houston Rockets shot selection with Thomas and Horford turning into an Eastern Conference facsimile of Steph and Draymond. That’s where we are heading back to DC.
Is the series over? Not quite. Fans hoping to maintain moral can point to the old saying that a series doesn’t start until a road team wins—but I don’t actually believe that. I’m staying hopeful by remembering the first playoff series I watched as a Wizards fan, the 2005 win against the Chicago Bulls. Chicago won the first two games at home before Washington won the next four to win the series 4-2. That Wizards team, featuring Arenas, Hughes, and Jamsion, probably had more talent than that Bulls team and was able to turn it around thanks to some electric play by its backcourt. Hmm…
The Wizards fought hard in game 2 and they very nearly took it. Besides going home what can Washington do to turn this series around? As you might have guessed I have some ideas.
First of all, getting a healthier Morris in game 3 would be huge. Markieff was heroic in game 2 but you could tell he was hobbled on defense. If he’s healthy his combination of strength and mobility probably makes him the best option to guard Horford. A healthy Morris also allows Washington to break out its “death” lineup with Morris at center and Otto Porter at the 4. Scott Brooks played that lineup for the first time this series in overtime when Marcin Gortat fouled out but I’d like to see more of it.
The Wizards can actually match the Celtics when the Celtics go small but Brooks has been hesitant to try. In the 4th quarter of game 2 Boston played Isaiah, Bradley, Rozier, Smart, and Horford together and Brooks was still chugging along with Gortat to the tune of 42 minutes. Gortat is literally a machine but he simply can’t guard a Thomas/Horford pick and roll and it’s killing Washington. If Isaiah’s man goes under the pick IT pulls up for a three (10 for 23 through two games), if Gortat switches he gets roasted, and if Washington traps Isaiah he slips the ball to Horford and Boston has a pseudo 4-on-3 which Horford proceeds to picks apart. Point guards who can drain threes off the dribble have been playing centers off the floor all year—Scott Brooks just doesn’t realize it’s happened to Gortat.
With Mahinmi out and Morris limited it’s tricky, but Brooks needs to not make the same mistake he became famous for in Oklahoma City (riding Kendrick Perkins vs a small-ball Heat team). Jason Smith, slightly more mobile than Gortat, should get minutes at the five, as should Morris. I’m not saying Gortat should be benched—he’s a key piece of this team’s identity—but he should be playing closer to 30 minutes than 40.
I would also like to see Otto Porter’s minutes managed so that he’s playing power forward every second Morris is not. Otto had his breakout game against Boston back in November on a night he played a lot of power forward. Boston mostly plays Jae Crowder there, who Otto matches up with. I firmly believe Porter should be playing the third most minutes on the team in this series.
Even if Brooks breaks character and goes small Thomas is still basically unstoppable right now. All the Wizards can hope to do is slow him down by continuing to change up the looks they give him. I could see a lineup with Morris at center that switches everything, including when Thomas is running off a screen without the ball, being effective for short stretches. I would also like to see the Wizards trap Thomas more on pick-and-rolls. I know Horford had a near triple double in game 1, and I know the Celtics have good role players, but seriously lets get the ball out of this guys hands. Thomas led the Celtics in scoring in, like, every game this year and I’d rather give up an open shot to someone else than to play him one-on-one.
Of course this doesn’t even matter if the Wizards can’t get on the same page on defense. There were times in Boston they seemed to not know what the scheme was and they have not done a good job of finding three point shooters in chaos. Threes in transition and off of offensive rebounds have deadly.
Washington also needs to keep attacking Thomas on defense. Wall had success posting him up early in game 2, but they were not able to take much advantage when Thomas was guarding Porter or Kelly Oubre. Porter can’t post up, but what I would like to see is whoever Thomas is guarding getting more involved as the screener. When Thomas guards Porter I would like to see Porter set a screen for Wall to either force a switch or get something going towards the basket.
Finally, Bradley Beal. The leading scorer in Washington’s two previous playoff runs is currently shooting 27% from three on 8.6 attempts per game in this year’s playoffs. He had 14 points in game 2 on 4 for 15 shooting with 6 turnovers. And while he had 27 in game 1, six of them came from two threes when the game was out of reach. Quite frankly, he has a really tough matchup with Avery Bradley who always does a good job on him. Beal is not going to keep missing open threes, but he can’t hang his head like in game 2. He needs to be assertive when he is not being guarded by Avery Bradley and needs to play smarter when he is.
My theory is that whichever team wins the guard matchup on a given night will win the game. It was true in the first two games. That said, it’s hard for me to see Wall and Beal going down 3-0 to a team they feel is their peer. Bring on game 3.