WASHINGTON — If you hadn’t watched the first two games of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics but I told you that the Wizards had scored a combined 230 points, you’d think they’d be coming home with no worse than a split, maybe up 2-0. But since you probably have watched them (if you’re reading this), you know that Washington squandered early double-digit leads in each game, losing both.
There’s good news and bad news in the early results. The starting unit has outplayed Boston’s fairly consistently to begin halves, but the Celtics have shown superior depth and have hurt Washington in different ways offensively. There are three major tweaks that, if successful, could be the difference in getting the Wizards back into this series beginning Thursday night.
Chase Boston off the arc
The Wizards had the worst three-point defense of any Eastern Conference playoff team in the regular season, allowing the opposition to hit 36.4 percent of their shots from behind the arc. Through eight games this postseason, that number is down slightly to 34.3 percent (82-for-239), but is more telling in their wins and losses.
In four wins, Washington has held the opposition to 26.9 percent from deep. Unsurprisingly, they’ve fared substantially worse in losses, allowing a 40.5 percent make rate. Their opponents have also shot 25 percent more volume of threes in their losses, particularly the Celtics, who have hucked 39 and 36 triples in Games 1 and 2, respectively.
Washington did a better job of moving Boston off the arc by aggressively challenging and closing out shots for much of Game 2, but there were still costly lapses, which head coach Scott Brooks even acknowledged verbally postgame and expanded on Wednesday.
“We sucked in when they were at the three-point line,” he said of a couple late possessions, namely when Otto Porter dropped down at the 2:37 mark of this clip, which led to the game-tying three. “When you’re up three, you just don’t want to give up a three. You don’t want to give up a quick basket — you don’t want to give up anything. But if you have a choice, you definitely don’t want to give up a three.”
This is true of late-game scenarios, but the Wizards are better off forcing the non-Isaiah Thomas Celtics to put the ball on the floor and have to take runners, contested jumpers or give the ball up than yield clean looks at any point. The three-point defense also presents itself when it comes to fighting through screens at the arc, which hasn’t always happened these playoffs. Doing so can be exhausting, but it’s the necessary level of defense to advance. Which brings us to the second point …
Better bench usage
This one falls squarely on Brooks, and he knows it. The starting five, one of the best and most-heavily used in the NBA all season long, has built both of those early leads. The bench has coughed it up. Let’s have a look at the bench’s plus-minus so far this series, tracking how many points the Wizards have been ahead or behind with certain players on the floor.
If those numbers haven’t blinded you or sent you into a state of catatonic shock, you’ll notice that the two most heavily used subs so far this series have had the opposing lineup outscore them by nearly a point per minute while they’ve been on the floor. That’s unspeakably bad.
But you can’t just run your starters out there for 48 minutes, even if rotations do get a little tighter in the playoffs. With (in all likelihood) no Ian Mahinmi for Game 3, Brooks has to make do with what he’s got, which means finding better ways to integrate his lineups so the drop-off isn’t so severe.
Brooks suggested Wednesday that he might try to play John Wall and Brandon Jennings together a bit, with Wall shifting to the off-guard to give him a breather while Beal rests. This could help mitigate some of the losses and keep both starting guards fresher deeper into the game. Brooks also said he regretted playing Bogdonavic only eight minutes in Game 2, but more minutes as part of the same lineup clearly isn’t the answer.
Crash the defensive glass
The Celtics ranked 22nd in the league with 9.1 offensive rebounds per game in the regular season, but they’ve had 12 apiece in each of the first two games of this series. That’s been especially brutal when Boston has turned those additional opportunities into quick, open looks from the outside. This is a part of the game that falls squarely on the players themselves.
When teams launch as many threes as the Celtics have, sometimes long rebounds are inevitable. But the Wizards have superior rebounders in Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter, and need to take advantage in that department. It’s the spot where Mahinmi is perhaps missed the most — his rebound rate was second only to Gortat’s on the team.
“We have to do a better job rebounding the basketball,” Brooks conceded Wednesday.
If the Wizards do that, keep Boston from getting too many clean looks from three and mix up their lineups better to stave off letdowns, they’ll be in good shape. Isaiah Thomas is going to get his, but if Washington keeps the rest of the Celtics in check, that won’t matter.