- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2017

BOSTON — It seems fitting. Boston and Washington have deemed each other irritants for two seasons now, a mutual frustration that almost tipped into something uglier earlier in the regular season after a game in Boston. Wizards star John Wall had words and a chest bump with Boston strongman Jae Crowder then. Crowder stuck his finger in Wall’s face. Security was assembled in the back halls of TD Garden after the on-court flash of grumpiness.

In today’s cordial NBA, when players workout together in the offseason instead of being chased by fear of what their rival is doing on another coast, the Celtics and Wizards have what can casually be called “bad blood” between them. Washington dress in all-black for a so-called “funeral” game less than two weeks after the Wall-Crowder encounter. When their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals begin Sunday afternoon in Boston, everyone will be challenged to manage their shared disdain during an attempt to play basketball.

For all of the Wizards’ travails, this is their third trip to the conference semifinals in the last four seasons. The prior two they were emphatic underdogs who had pulled a first-round upset to advance and be an assumed patsy for the top seed in the conference. Instead, both of those series — first with Indiana, then two years ago with Atlanta — became tussles Washington left thinking it should have won. In particular, the 2015 series against the Hawks when Wall received five non-displaced fractures in his left hand has been chewed on since. Paul Pierce was on that team. When visiting the District this season with the Los Angeles Clippers, Pierce sat at his locker and shook his head. “Man, we should have beat Atlanta.”

Not doing so allowed the Wizards to keep up their end in D.C. sports’ postseason failings. No team has been to a conference finals in the four major pro sports since the Capitals made it in 1998. Wizards guard Bradley Beal was stunned to hear the news just before the playoffs began. He concluded that the teams owe the city. Its members surely agree.

He and Wall are the reasons Washington stands four wins from kicking aside that lore. They played efficient and active basketball Friday night in Atlanta on the way to a combined 73 points. It took just 42 shots to get there. In the fourth quarter, Wall scored 19 points. Beal scored four. The rest of the team scored three. Washington advanced by winning on the road.

“We came here with that focus and determination that we wanted to do the same thing those guys did to us two years ago,” Wall said. “Me and Brad led the way. We locked in. Our teammates understood what we had (to do). We didn’t want to have a Game 7.”

Boston presents a more defensively firm backcourt than Atlanta did. Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart are bigger, more interested in defense and simply better at it than the Hawks duo of Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr. Instead of facing guys who are working toward being two-way players, Wall and Beal will be challenged by two of the best perimeter defenders in the league.

The wrinkle in that mix is Isaiah Thomas, Boston’s small, shifty, score-first point guard who has worked his way from “Mr. Irrelevant” as the final pick of the 2011 draft to a two-time All-Star and soul of the Celtics. Tragedy entered Thomas’ life at the start of the playoffs when his sister, Chyna, was killed in a car accident in their hometown of Federal Way, Wash. — a short trip outside of their hometown, Tacoma, Wash. — just before the postseason began. He played through tears to start the series. Friday night, he left from Chicago to attend his sister’s funeral Saturday. Chyna would have been 23 years old next week.

Thomas is listed as 5 foot 9, and in the past has joked there should be an extra quarter inch on that measurement, though reality indicates the 69 inches may be generous to begin with. His size is a prolific benefit and detriment. Thomas has long used thoughts about what he can’t do, often predicated on his height, as motivation to turn into an unlikely All-Star. But, his height is a defensive issue in the NBA and leaves Boston coach Brad Stevens with a decision.

In the final game against Chicago, Boston started Thomas, Bradley, Gerald Green, Crowder and Al Horford. Crowder is a 6-foot-6 “power forward” in that alignment. As stern as he may be, playing against 6-foot-10 Markieff Morris would be a chore for Crowder, which means Amir Johnson, who was benched in the Celtics’ first-round series, could be back in the mix.

Starting Thomas and Bradley in the backcourt means Thomas needs to guard Wall, Beal or possibly Otto Porter. If Thomas is on Porter, Bradley can move to either Wall or Beal and defend them along with Crowder. Because of injuries throughout the season, Boston never presented the same starting lineup against Washington twice. In the final meeting, the most likely Boston starters were used: Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Johnson and Horford. However, Johnson was a liability for the Celtics in the three games he played against Washington. He averaged just 5 points and played only 16.7 minutes per game. Jonas Jerebko and Kelly Olynyk are options at his spot.

Playing the Celtics will present a new challenge for Marcin Gortat. Past his first-round combat with Dwight Howard, Gortat will now face the more mobile Horford. Washington thought Horford would be joining its frontcourt in the offseason, but he chose Boston instead of the Wizards. Horford’s versatility is key to the issues he presents. He took a career-high 3.6 3-pointers per game this season. Gortat has improved at guarding the league’s “stretch-five” players as the season has gone on.

Seventeen championship banners hang over each game played in Boston. Stevens knows a championship-or-bust philosophy is not something just said in Boston. It’s the way it is for the Celtics. They have not been to the conference finals since 2012, have not won a title since 2008 and even read how Stevens’ job security was trending downward when they trailed Chicago 2-0.

The Wizards have one title. It arrived in 1978. The last time they made it to the conference finals was 1979, disco, Carter, Volkswagen Beetles and all that. They are not under the pressure of vaunted history. However, what weighs on them is the failure of their last two playoff appearances. They would revel in change coming at Boston’s expense.

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