9:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Celtics -2, Over/Under: 232.5
Finally after a sprint of seventy-two games, the NBA playoffs are nearly upon us but first we have the matter of the Association’s Play-In Tournament to deal with, as the (Eight Seed) Washington Wizards face off against the (Seven Seed) Boston Celtics from TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. In this particular case, the winner of tonight’s game will move on to face the (Two Seed) Brooklyn Nets in the First Round of the Playoffs, while the loser will get a second opportunity to earn their postseason qualification against the winner of the Nine/Ten Matchup from earlier tonight with that victor set to face the (One Seed) Philadelphia 76ers. After an unfortunately dreadful start marred by injuries and COVID-19, the Wizards (34-38, 8th in Eastern Conference) have been in desperation mode for months now, approaching the second half of the campaign as if there was no tomorrow, which is precisely the case as they positioned themselves in this Play-In. Washington got off to a miserable 6-17 start in 2020-2021, with the team unable to practice/play for the better part of two weeks in Mid-January, while (2016-2017 MVP) Russell Westbrook (22.2 PTS, 43.9% FG, 31.5% 3FG, 11.5 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 19.5 PER) missing seven games to injury and promising young center, Thomas Bryant (14.3 PTS, 64.8% FG, 42.9% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 BLK, 18.7 PER) losing the season to a torn ACL in his left knee after just ten games. Of course, Westbrook arrived in the (condensed) offseason via a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets in exchange for the oft-injured John Wall, reuniting the nine-time All-Star with former Head Coach, Scott Brooks, whom he spent the first seven years of his career with in Oklahoma City. However, though things certainly started slowly for the pair this season, something has absolutely clicked in the second half of the for Westbrook has been the posterchild for this team’s success of late, averaging 23.0 points on 45.4% shooting, with 13.5 rebounds and 14.0 assists over the last twenty-three games, a period in which the Wizards rallied to a 17-6 mark with the veteran Point Guard logging half of his thirty-six Triple-Doubles this season, a year in which he also passed (Hall of Famer) Oscar Robertson on the all-time list (184). Leading the NBA in assists for the third time in the last four years, Westbrook has developed excellent chemistry with fellow Guard, Bradley Beal (31.3 PTS, 48.5% FG, 34.9% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 22.7 PER), who very nearly finished the campaign as the league’s leading scorer, averaging a career-high 31.3 points. The 27-year old entered the league as simply a jump-shooter, but has since expanded his skillset to the point where he can just as easily get to the rim on drives and cutting off the ball, while his shooting range has only expanded. With that said, Beal has been playing through a tender left hamstring for the past week, though still managed to finish a game-high twenty-five points (albeit on 8-of-27 shooting) in Washington’s 115-110 victory over the Charlotte Hornets in the Season Finale over the weekend. Awaiting them in this Play-In are the Celtics, whom they met on three occasions during the Regular Season, winning just one though the two defeats were both by single-digits. When they last met, a 111-110 thriller shortly before the All-Star Break, Beal totaled forty-six points on 16-of-29 shooting (55.2%), including 11-of-12 from the charity stripe (91.7%), while Westbrook added twenty-four points, eleven rebounds, and four assists. Brooks’ charges would ultimately fail to protect a late 110-105 lead inside the final minute of play though, as Boston’s Jayson Tatum (more on him shortly) placed the hosts on his back and carried them to victory. In these three meetings, the Wiz may have struggled in shooting from the field, netting just 43.8% of their attempts overall and 29.7% from downtown, but they have made up for it in other ways by getting to stripe (Plus-4.3 FT) and forcing turnovers, which have turned into a wealth of opportunities on the offensive end, averaging a solid 26.7 points off turnovers. Beal has been DEADLY against the Celtics, averaging a robust 40.7 points on 55.3% shooting, including 45.8% from three.
Meanwhile, you’ll forgive the faithful in the Northeast if they’re still trying to wrap their heads around the fact that the Celtics (36-36, 7th in Eastern Conference) are even participating in this Play-In Tournament, particularly when you consider the franchise’s pedigree and the fact that they had previously advanced to three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals. However, it’s undeniable that there has been a drain of talent in Boston that stretches back a few years, and it appears that the bill if finally coming due for a franchise who at one point appeared to be set up for success better than any other in the Association. It all began two years ago, when the Celtics said goodbye to the mercurial yet uber-talented Kyrie Irving only to replace him with (fellow All-Star Point Guard) Kemba Walker (19.3 PTS, 42.0% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.7 PER), who while a much better fit in the locker room isn’t quite of the same caliber from a skill level as his predecessor. He’s also been fairly injury-prone, having missed twenty-nine games this season after undergoing offseason knee surgery, leading to a meager 42.0% shooting from the field, his lowest such figure since he was a rookie a decade ago. And then there is (former Swingman) Gordon Hayward, who despite never making an All-Star Team under the watch of (Head Coach) Brad Stevens, whom coached him in college at Butler, was a versatile and efficient option on the offensive end of hardwood. Hayward left the club via a sign-and-trade with the Charlotte Hornets in the offseason, with Boston only receiving a Trade Exception that they wouldn’t utilize until after the All-Star Break at the Trade Deadline. That Trade Exception, the largest in NBA history at just over $22 million, was eventually used in part to land (versatile Guard) Evan Fournier (13.0 PTS, 44.8% FG, 46.3% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.3 STL, 14.1 PER) at the Trade Deadline, though the Frenchman would miss eleven of his first fifteen games with his new team after landing squarely in the sights of the league’s Health and Safety Protocols. With that said, the 28-year old has begun to find his footing, averaging 13.5 points on 45.5% shooting, including 45.8% from three, along with 3.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists over the final dozen games of the season. Stevens will need him to become more of a factor, particularly with the unfortunate news that (All-Star Guard) Jaylen Brown (24.7 PTS, 48.4% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 19.9 PER) will miss the rest of the campaign after undergoing surgery on his wrist. Simply put, the 24-year old improved by leaps and bounds this season, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including points (24.7), field goal percentage (48.4%), three-point percentage (39.7%), free-throw percentage (76.4%), assists (3.4), and steals (1.2). With so many of his teammates dealing with injuries or illness, Brown was by far and away the most consistent player within the rotation, and his absence moving forward is a MAJOR loss for a team that has already had their depth taxed severely over the past few months. In the end, it’s likely that the Celtics will travel as far as (All-Star Forward) Jayson Tatum (26.4 PTS, 45.9% FG, 38.6% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.2 STL, 21.3 PER) will carry them. Tatum, who rose to prominence late last season within The Bubble in Orlando, has been one of many players in the NBA this season to be effected by COVID-19, missing roughly two weeks of action in January with the virus, and has gone on record stating that he still feels it’s effects four months later. With that said, the 23-year old has still managed to enjoy a career year, with personal bests in scoring (26.4), rebounds (7.4) and assists (4.3), though there is a prevailing train of thought around the league that he’s being asked to do too much for lack of a better option. As a team, Boston has struggled to move the basketball with a meager 23.5 assists per game (25th Overall), while also settling for long jumpers far too often, ranking twentieth in two-point field goal attempts (52.5) and twenty-fifth in free-throw attempts (20.8), which are further indications of not being aggressive and getting to the rim. Add it all up and you have a team that has seriously backed into this Play-In Tournament, losing ten of their final fifteen games, with their defense failing them in particular over the last nine outings, yielding 116.8 points on 47.9% shooting overall and 40.0% from the perimeter, while permitting 23.9 assists and forcing just 12.0 turnovers. Needless to say, they’re going to need to get it together against the aforementioned Wizards, who have been in desperation mode for months now. Sure, they may have beaten twice this season, but all three of those meetings occurred before the All-Star Break, with both teams having changed quite a bit since their last encounter. Despite totaling thirty-five points in their last meeting, Tatum must improve on his shooting splits of 28.6% from three to keep up Washington side that has shown that they can match baskets with the most prolific of opponents.