Speaking before Game 3 in Washington last week, Brad Stevens was honest. "Our guys aren't gonna get overconfident," he said. "We got pounded for five of the eight quarters, in my opinion."
That was his read on the first two games of the Celtics-Wizards series, and it proved prophetic for the next two. After going up 2-0, the Celtics got pounded all over again in D.C.—let's call it seven of eight quarters this time—and now the series is tied heading back to Boston.
The Wizards looked like the better team despite stumbling into an 0–2 hole, and they really look like the better team now. There's no need to recap another 20-point blowout. Take 45 seconds to watch this John Wall pass, and this Wall fast break, and this Marcus Smart fatality, and you should be set.
Markieff Morris assessed the series afterward: "The first game we were up 20 in the first quarter. The second game, up 15, 16 in the second half. We just gotta keep putting our foot on the pedal and keep pressing forward. We're the better team."
And as Wall explained: "We feel like we're in control. We have the momentum. We feel like we can win there. We know we can. We just gotta do a better job taking care of those leads we get, and just playing smart basketball down the stretch."
Now let's talk about the bigger picture. I'm a Wizards fan, and this year's team was more explosive and more competent than this franchise has ever been in my lifetime. They won 49 games, and it was the most successful regular season since 1978. But the regular season aside, what's happened in the playoffs thus far isn't quite as groundbreaking as it may seem.
In 2014, Wall and the Wizards opened the East semifinals by blowing out a Pacers team that had been flat–lining for months. They looked faster, stronger, and flat-out better. Wall looked like the East's next superstar, and Beal was close behind him. The whole team looked like it was on the brink of arriving sooner than anyone thought. And then... Washington lost the next three games. Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza went cold, Nene and Gortat were neutralized by Roy Hibbert, and Wall and Beal looked young and overwhelmed as the series unfolded. It was over in six games.
Then came the Hawks in 2015. John Wall fractured his hand in Game 1, but it almost didn't matter. The Hawks were sputtering by that point in the year, and they just couldn't score. The Wizards won Game 1, and they evened the series at 2-2 in a game that doubled as a Paul Pierce religious experience. Then Wall came back to play with a fractured hand, and... that's when it fell apart. Wall was fantastic and superhuman, but he wasn't enough. There were boxout issues on the final play in Game 5, and the series ended when Paul Pierce tied the game after time expired in Game 6. (This whole paragraph should've come with a trigger warning.)
I don't mention any of that history to be negative. But those playoff exits help explain what the Wizards are looking to overcome—and also what it'll take. The Pacers and Hawks won those series by playing smart basketball and nailing the little things—defense, bench rotations, heartbreaking rebounds to seal Game 5 in Atlanta, etc.
Exploiting those hidden advantages in every game has never been a Washington specialty. Compounding the problem: the Celtics are generally great in that department. They're not all that different from the 2015 Hawks. They have a team full of players who've made a career out of overachieving. Their coach is literally famous for out-of-bounds plays. Their superstar point guard exploits every defensive mistake and every pocket of space and turns it into points. They all play smart as a rule.
Also, the crowds in Boston will be insane, and Isaiah is not going to have another game with zero free throws. If the Wizards are conquering demons, the Celtics won't make any of this easy.
To win in Boston the Wizards will have to avoid sloppy turnovers that turn into easy points for Celtics shooters. They'll have to chase Isaiah Thomas all over the floor the way Bradley Beal did in Game 4. Scott Brooks will have to manage the bench lineups better than he did the first two games in this series. And their superstars will have to pace themselves to peak at the right time—Wall put together a masterpiece in Game 2, but he was out of gas by the fourth. Beal never showed up to help him, and that is how they gave away a perfectly winnable playoff game on the road.
That loss, plus general fan dementia, is why I'm trying to stay cautious after the past two dominant victories. There have just been too many false starts for the past few years. Everyone's been ready to watch this team enter a new tier on the NBA hierarchy, and it's never quite materialized.
That said, the progress has looked realer than ever this year. Beal had shown flashes in the past, but this was the year he turned into a full-on problem for everyone. He put up 24.8 points per game after the All-Star break on 49% shooting, and he spent the better part of 2017 looking like the most underrated star in the NBA. Otto Porter is the best wing John Wall's ever had. When he wasn't burying open threes this season, he was poking away rebounds and extending possessions for everyone else. Markieff Morris has been a goon in the best sense of the word, and once he started playing well, the entire team took off. MarcinGortat has carried them on the glass, and his screens unlock the offense for the Wizards guards the same way Andrew Bogut once did for Golden State.
Scott Brooks has been fantastic. He's managed a suicide squad off the bench and somehow made it work, and he's pushed all the right buttons with the superstars. If there's one single reason to think this year's outcome could be different than underwhelming finishes of the past, it's the difference in coaching.
And Wall. Look, this dude is not normal. He's an offense by himself. He's not LeBron, but next to maybe Giannis, nobody else in the East comes close to affecting games like he does. His scoring is more refined than ever, he's the best passer in the league, and he makes the game easier for every other player on the floor. He's doing horrible things to this Celtics defense. It's what he's been doing to teams all year. He's a superstar that the rest of the league should be dying to play with.
But none of this season's progress will be official until Wall and this team actually go somewhere new. Getting there will take execution down the stretch that the Wizards have never totally delivered in the past, and talent that they've had all along.
Speaking of which, after watching the Wizards blow the Celtics off the court twice in four days, I remembered what Wall told me back in October:
"They still don't respect me. But I mean, that's something that comes with the games. I'm gonna let people know this season. … And I don't know. You know what I mean? You have career years, when you're winning games, you start an All-Star Game, and you're still not put on the top three All-NBA teams. That lets you know. But all I can do is control what John Wall does. Going out there and leading my team. You're not getting any recognition as a point guard if you ain't winning."
All of this gets settled in the next week. If respect is the issue, Wall and the Wizards have never had a better opportunity to make the whole league pay attention.