Showing up for Game 7 just won’t be good enough
WALTHAM — The Celtics can’t simply expect to win Game 7 because it’s in Boston. They played well enough for 46½ minutes in Game 6 against the Washington Wizards to end this series.
The Wizards are feeling rejuvenated after John Wall’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds left, a shot that reinvigorated an entire city after, in the NHL playoffs, the Washington Capitals rallied from a 3-1 deficit to the Pittsburgh Penguins, only to lose Game 7.
So the pressure is on the Celtics. They are the No. 1 seed. They were one play from winning Game 6 and are saying the right things about the opportunity to play Game 7.
But the Wizards feel as if they have a second chance. They did dominate the first two games of the series in Boston, but they lost both. Yet, the Wizards have contained Isaiah Thomas to 77 points in the past four games (19.25 points per game average) after his 53-point performance in Game 2.
Thomas will try to have one of those reputation-defining games Monday, but the Celtics have to rely on more than that.
The Celtics bench will be critical to a win. And that group was a putrid 2-for-15 shooting with 5 points in Game 6. The bench has been dramatically better at home, as can be expected, but they are going to have to hit some open shots.
In Game 6, the Washington defense, so focused on Thomas, allowed Kelly Olynyk and Jaylen Brown to attempt open 3-pointers. They missed all five. Brown, who has worked feverishly on his corner 3-pointer, became hesitant the fourth time, drove to the basket, missed a layup, and then committed a loose-ball foul.
They can’t just rely on being home. The Celtics are going to have to produce a performance that is not just Thomas dropping buckets. They will need a team effort to win. No silly fouls. Boxing out on rebounds and most important, defending at the rim.
Bradley Beal made 15 field goals in Game 6, one from beyond the arc. While the talk after that game was Wall’s 3-pointer, it was Beal who hit the Wizards’ previous two field goals to keep Washington in the game. And he has been punishing the Celtics at the rim with his ability to slash and score.
“Playing in Boston is the best but it’s about playing well,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Ultimately that’s what you have to do. Washington came out and dominated the better part of the first two games. We were very fortunate to win. So we’re going to have to play well [Monday].”
There is going to be unquestionable pressure in Game 7. The pressure is on the Celtics to close out this series because they are at home and once owned a 3-2 lead. But there is an uncomfortable feeling playing Washington because the Wizards have two players — Beal and Wall — who can explode offensively at any moment. Those two dominated the second half of Game 6. They scored a combined 42 of Washington’s 51 second-half points with Markieff Morris scoring the other 9.
The other Wizards attempted four shots.
So the goal has to be to contain Wall and Beal. Wall can’t just be allowed to dribble up and take uncontested midrange jumpers. Beal can’t be allowed to drive uncontested past Thomas and score at the rim without resistance. There has to be a different defensive plan, a wrinkle the Wizards have not seen.
The Celtics can’t run their same team out there and expect victory. That would be a lazy approach. They need players who will be playing in their first Game 7, who will be playing in the biggest game of their lives, to flourish in the situation.
“They’ve just got to be ready,” Thomas said. “I’ve been on all my teammates about being ready to shoot, being ready to put yourself in a position to be able to score, make another play for somebody else.
“Like I said from the jump, I believe in those guys and if they play well, it’s hard for teams to try to put two or three guys on me because you’ve got to pick your poison. I think everybody’s confident and I believe we’ll win the game.”
What will be required Monday is more offensive aggression from players such as Jae Crowder, who attempted two shots in the second half of Game 6. Al Horford has been stellar over the past few games, but he also needs to take advantage of his scoring opportunities.
Monday may turn out to be a showcase for Thomas, an opportunity to prove he is ready for the challenge of a series-deciding game. But the Celtics won’t advance to face LeBron James and the Cavaliers without full support from his teammates.
They can’t just stand and watch and expect 53 again. The Celtics have prided themselves this season on their depth, and it will require positive contributions from everyone who enters the game. TD Garden won’t be enough and hopefully the players aren’t fooled by the success of the home teams in Game 7.
That has nothing to do with Monday.