In what is the first Christmas Day game the Celtics have ever hosted in Boston, they will be sharing the holiday with the Wizards. But these teams will do anything but share holiday greetings once the game begins at TD Garden on Monday, as they will reunite for the first time since their epic seven-game playoff series in May.
There is a distinct difference, however, between then and now and it’s on the Celtics side. While the Wizards are essentially the same team that pushed Boston to the brink, the Celtics only have four players who participated in that series because of a flurry of offseason changes.
Kelly Olynyk, who got into an altercation with Washington’s Kelly Oubre? Gone. Isaiah Thomas, who scored 53 points in Game 2 and threatened to beat up a heckling Wizards fan behind the Celtics bench in Washington? Gone.
Avery Bradley, who dropped 29 in the Celtics’ Game 5 win? Outta here. Jae Crowder, the Celtics’ enforcer and standout frontcourt defender? Yeah, he’s gone, too.
The question is whether these absences will detract from the fierceness of the rivalry. Another wrinkle occurred this offseason when the Celtics acquired Marcus Morris, twin brother of Washington’s Markieff, in a trade for Bradley. Marcus has been targeting a return for this game from knee issues to match up against his brother. They are extremely close, and Marcus just wants to compete against him. Yet Markieff was one of the central figures in the animosity when he confronted Al Horford before Game 2 about a play in Game 1 that led to Markieff spraining his ankle.
Before the game, according to the Washington Post, Markieff approached Horford and asked if his sliding under him on a jump shot was intentional. Horford denied that was his intent, but Markieff still sent him sailing into the first row of seats with a hard foul as both chased a loose ball.
Marcus is now Horford’s teammate, and wants into the game but wants nothing to do with anything besides hard competition with his brother.
“That’s a really big game for me,” Marcus said of potentially facing his brother. “We’re really close so he knows it has nothing to really do with him. I know you guys want to spice it up. But that’s just how it goes.”
After Game 7, the Celtics and Wizards actually hugged it out at midcourt of TD Garden. There was mutual respect because both teams carry the same goal —
In the offseason, the Celtics nabbed former Cavalier Kyrie Irving in a trade for Thomas. Irving has been a part of his share of rivalries, especially against Golden State, but the Wizards also pushed Cleveland in several heated regular-season meetings.
“You definitely got the feel during the regular season when they were playing against one another,” Irving said of the Celtics and Wizards. “Both teams kind of jawing back and forth. Things happened within the playoff series. That’s fine. I don’t mind those type of games. I’m just looking forward to playing against a great Washington team.”
Marcus Smart, one of the four returnees, downplayed the matchup. The Celtics have the best record in the Eastern Conference and have a completely different look than last May. The Wizards, despite returning their full squad, have been wildly inconsistent this season, losing at home to Phoenix, Dallas, and Portland, and dropping a 35-point decision at Brooklyn before winning Saturday against Orlando, 130-103.
“I never really thought of it as a rivalry,” Smart said. “It is a lot of new faces. As a competitor, they’re going to come out ready and we’ve got to be able to come out and beat their intensity.”
Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum, a St. Louis native, has formed a close bond with another St. Louis product, Washington guard Bradley Beal.
“It doesn’t change. It’s going to be the same. He knows when we step on that floor, we’re not brothers anymore,” Beal said of Tatum. “We’re not going to go out there and try to kill one another, but at the same time, we’re not brothers. We’re not friends at that moment. We’ll be friends before and after the game — and once that ball’s in the air, man, all bets are off.
“He hasn’t experienced it yet. I think he’s going to have to play in it to understand it. He’s really not going to understand it just off of word of mouth. The intensity of the game, the physicality that it’s going to have, so I’m curious and excited to see what happens and what goes down. But he definitely has to get a feel for it first.”
The Wizards’ backcourt duo of John Wall and Beal were dominant in stretches in the series. Center Marcin Gortat grabbed boards virtually at will, and Otto Porter burned the Celtics from midrange.
It will be a difficult matchup, even without the emotional memories.
““I don’t get into all that [rivalry] stuff; I just know that that’s a heck of a team. [Wizards coach] Scott Brooks — really good coach,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They play hard. They exposed us in so many ways; that series could’ve gone either way. We probably won the series because we won homecourt. But I do think, like, they have outstanding players. It was a tremendous series.
“A lot of our players aren’t here, so when I talk in terms, like, of a scout to our players now about Chicago today or Washington on Monday, a lot of them are looking at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ So it’s an interesting dynamic there, but obviously we have a lot of respect for them.”