What capacity the Celtics have to win a playoff series—like the one they closed in Game 7 against the Wizards on Monday night—lies in the shadow of Isaiah Thomas. So much of Boston’s offense works best when the defense is forced to react to his skittering drives. Bigs are pulled out of position and then forced to make long recoveries. Wings watch the ball and give up backdoor cuts as a result. Once Thomas is able to occupy multiple defenders at once, Boston’s scheme springs into action, demanding rotation after rotation with speed and balance.
The fate of a possession is sussed out through that rhythm. In the end, barring a complete cycle of ball movement, opponents dictate their coverage of Thomas based on what they give up elsewhere. The ball will end up in the hands of some lesser scorer. Thomas’ size makes him so susceptible to trapping that it would be foolish not to try, so most every opponent does. Al Horford makes his money in the ensuing redirection, but inevitably a possession will land with a non-shooter like Marcus Smart. Or a rookie like Jaylen Brown. Or a highly variable big like Kelly Olynyk. And in Game 7, with both Boston and Washington’s seasons at stake, those three delivered the Celtics’ safe passage to the Eastern Conference finals.
How does Olynyk wind up with 26 points to go with five rebounds and four assists? By not only creating space for the offense but living in it. Shooters are stationed around the floor and then cycled through cuts and exchanges. At their best, the Celtics make defenders off the ball focus so much on a cut or a screen that they turn away from a player like Olynyk for just a moment. Most nights that’s a survivable concession. On this one, it wasn’t; between contested drives, curl jumpers, and spot-up threes, Olynyk seemed to always be moving right down the seam of an opponent’s inattention.
Making that kind of movement a constant wrecks a defense’s priorities. If containing Thomas in the pick-and-roll means affording Olynyk some room to make a play, his going 10-for-14 from the field upends a fundamental trade-off. When Marcus Smart – a 28.3% three-point shooter this season – goes 2-for-2 from long range, it baits a defender into closing hard when they probably shouldn’t. Put Smart in a vacuum and his offense is imminently solvable; there is no trusting his jumper and little reason for faith in his drives. But Smart is strong and cagey enough to make a play if a defense surrenders the lane, as is the case when it plays his shot as a genuine threat. Smart is on the floor to help chase around John Wall or Bradley Beal and to scrap a contested rebound out of a crowd. What scoring he gives the Celtics is a genuine swing.
The impact of these kinds of performances might have been muted if Washington’s bench had anything to show for this series, much less this closeout game. What would the Wizards have given in this series to have a Jaylen Brown of their own? A gutsy rookie forward who produced nine points out of haphazard situations while giving his team 20 good minutes? One could argue Washington benched the closest thing it had in Kelly Oubre, who slipped from the rotation entirely after filling an important role early in the series. Oubre might not seem like a Game 7 difference-maker, but neither might Olynyk, Smart, or Brown. This was a winnable game, had the Wizards wrung any meaningful contribution at all from its reserves. Instead, Brown—the third-leading scorer off Boston’s bench—nearly doubled the output of Washington’s subs on his own.
Even one solid stint from a Wizards bench player could have turned this game. It might have altered the rotation to the point that the rusty Ian Mahinmi could be shelved or so that Wall or Beal (who combined for 90 minutes) could rest a spell. Beal manufactured every clean look he could down the stretch to help relieve a strained offense, but too much ground was lost in any minute when any of the four subs that actually played (Mahinmi, Bojan Bogdanovic, Brandon Jennings, and Jason Smith) took the floor. They were made to look foolish not only by stars like Thomas and Horford, but on unfathomable Olynyk blow-bys and Smart bludgeoning his way into open space.
In essence, these are compounding problems: an obvious lack of depth, a persistence in schematic approach when in-game adjustment was called for, bungled rotations to go with strange misplays, and outstanding returns from the supporting Celtics needed to make good. Washington endured all of this and wound up trailing by just four points with six minutes remaining. A crippling and specific weakness hurt the Wizards all series and, really, all throughout the playoffs. What ultimately did them in was the sheer scale of it—an agonizing few points from the very Celtics they preferred to challenge directly.