It’s not quite the hand-to-hand combat seen when the New York Knicks faced the Chicago Bulls and the Indiana Pacers in the ‘90s, or other blood and guts series of decades past. But the Eastern Conference semifinal between the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, which reached Game 5 in Boston last night tied 2-2, has the feel of a matchup between teams intent on reviving old school basketball.
They admittedly have no love for each other. The animosity that took hold during their regular season meetings has escalated during the postseason. “We don’t like them, they don’t like us,” said the Celtics’ 28-year-old guard Isaiah Thomas after Game 3, a 116-89 beatdown by the Wizards.
It featured an altercation between the Celtics’ 7-foot, 240-pound Kelly Olynyk and the Wizards’ 6-foot-7, 205-pound swingman Kelly Oubre Jr., precipitated by what Oubre determined was an illegal screen by Olynyk. Oubre, in his second season from Kansas, reacted by charging at Olynyk, trucking the four-year center from Gonzaga and earning a one-game suspension served in Game 4.
“I guess, just two teams that really don’t like each other,” reasoned Wizards guard John Wall when asked about the genesis of the physical play. “But like I said, as long as guys aren’t out there trying to hurt each other, it comes with the game of basketball that someone is going to get fouled hard.”
That’s the mentality of eras past. It’s long been labeled playoff basketball. The stakes are higher the deeper teams move into the postseason. But the battles within the larger battle haven’t distracted from the remarkable play by Wall and Thomas. The 6-foot-4, 26-year-old Wall has cemented his place as arguably the NBA’s best all-around point guard.
At 28.8 points per game, he is the third leading scorer remaining in the playoffs behind the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James (34.4) and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden (30.3). He is also far and away the assists leader, averaging 11.1. Additionally, no one dictates and controls the pace of a game better than the seven-year veteran from Kentucky. On the other end of the court, Wall is a superior on the ball defender.
Thomas, in his sixth season from the University of Washington, playing with the memory of the death of his younger sister Chyna Thomas, who perished in a car accident on the eve of the start of the postseason, has been nothing short of spectacular from the outset of the playoffs, posting averages of 25.6 points and nearly six assists heading into Game 5. In the process, he has silenced many critics who questioned whether at 5-foot-9 but built like a fire hydrant, Thomas has the necessities to be a franchise level player.
Game 6 will be in Washington Friday at 8 p.m. and Game 7 back in Boston Monday if the Celtics and Wizards are deadlocked at 3-3. Smart money says the teams will indeed be in New England to decide who will face the Cavaliers in the conference finals.