Around the corner from the visiting locker room in TD Garden, Bradley Beal fumed. He talked with a stern voice and rapid pace to a group that included family members and friends.
Just up the hallway minutes earlier, Wizards coach Scott Brooks, general manager Ernie Grunfeld and team owner Ted Leonsis had come together. “We’re close” was the shared sentiment. That was precisely why Beal was so mad.
On May 15, after a heavy seven-game series in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics, the season was over. The Wizards had come closer to the Eastern Conference Finals than the other two playoff pushes that had also ended on that date — those in 2014 and 2015 — which seemed to only make it worse. Seven games with budding rival Boston. The Wizards were out. Again.
“Beyond mad,” Beal said of his feeling when leaving the arena. “If you can find a word that’s worse than mad, that’s what I was. I feel like we competed. I feel like it was a great series. We put ourselves in a position to win and have a chance. The biggest thing thing is the feeling of being one step, (snaps fingers), a few plays away from being in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was definitely frustrating.”
Monday, Beal and his Wizards teammates walk back into the home of the Boston Celtics for a nationally-televised afternoon game on Christmas Day. It’s the second time in the last three years that Washington has been part of the NBA’s marquee spate of games on the holiday. Boston has changed personnel in the months since the Wizards were last in Boston, but not standing in the Eastern Conference. They have a grip on the top spot. The Wizards? They continue to work in spurts and are part of the secondary pack in the conference.
Both the changes to Boston’s roster and delayed launch of the Wizards takes steam out of what had become a gruff, high-end battle between two would-be rivals. Protagonists Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder were traded from Boston to Cleveland in the offseason. Their team swap chopped the rivalry at the knees since their mouths and bodies would now have no influence on the exchange.
Thomas, short, mighty and talkative, was one of the keys to the basis of the rivalry. He organized the idea for his teammates to wear all-black to an elimination game in Washington during the series, which the Celtics lost.
It was Crowder who had a face-to-face exchange with John Wall following a regular-season game last season, going as far as trying to venture toward the Wizards’ locker room after the game, setting security in motion.
That duo is out. In is Kyrie Irving, a king of shot-making and curious life takes (the Earth is flat; Christmas is not a holiday), who wanted out of Cleveland to blossom on his own terms. Irving is flanked by two young, long, versatile and highly effective wing players in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Like Beal, Tatum is from St. Louis. Unlike Beal, Tatum went to Duke instead of Florida. The Blue Devils’ Nov. 26 victory against the Gators means Beal has to show up in Boston bearing gifts. He lost his bet with Tatum. The rookie will be the new owner of a pair of shoes. He chose a pair from Christian Louboutin. Suede sneakers from the French designer, whose signature is a scarlet sole, cost $1,295 at Barneys New York.
“He asked for a pair of red bottoms, so he’s trying to break my pockets a little bit,” Beal said.
Like Tatum, Wizards forward Mike Scott is new to the Boston-Washington situation. He watched last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals between the teams while sitting in his Atlanta home and unsure what his basketball future would be. Scott had flamed out with the Atlanta Hawks because of injuries and issues. Watching the Celtics and Wizards carry a personal disdain for each other onto the floor stirred Scott, who gets to participate Monday night.
“I was like, damn, man,” Scott said. “It was great. We played Boston the year before. I don’t think it was as chippy, turnt up as that series, but mentally I kind of felt where they were at. It was a great series, man. Kelly [Oubre] got into it with Kelly [Olynyk]. Those types of games, I love it. [Markieff Morris] getting into it with Al [Horford]. I think he sprained his ankle. It was great playoff basketball. Hard fouls, chippiness, intensity, playing hard. What else you want out of that?”
Scott has been a revelation off the bench in an otherwise mundane Wizards season. Beal’s shooting numbers are down, though his overall workload is up. John Wall, who wilted in the fourth quarter of Game 7 last season, has dealt with minutes restrictions, knee pain and wayward shooting. Monday, he lines up against Irving in what will be the most heavily billed single matchup of the game between two All-Stars able to deliver eye-popping moments.
“We are great friends off the court, but on the court we are trying to take each other’s head off,” Wall said.
Boston’s makeover goes beyond Irving and the roster. The arena’s facade is now blocked by the steel framework for the North Station area redevelopment plan, which will include a grocery store, movie theater and other retail right next to the arena. What was a boarded warehouse 15 years ago has been converted into high-end condominiums about 100 feet away. On the other side of the arena are new apartment towers.
In a way, revamping the building around the Garden, pitching the city into a tussle between the brick-and-grind soul of the North End and demands of modern life, is reflective of the changes in the Celtics. Defense-first Avery Bradley is gone. Thomas, who became an All-Star in Boston, yet believes everyone on the planet thinks less of him, is in Cleveland. Crowder, an undersized power forward know for his feistiness, was sent to Ohio with Thomas. Those moves turned things over to Irving and the kids.
But, once inside, the reminders loom. The tight visitor’s locker room is in the same place. The parquet floor is the same. The “Let’s go Celtics!” chants will still boom on the holiday. It should all easily remind Beal why he was beyond mad, and that he has a chance, for a day, to do something about it.