BOSTON — This was not the same group who has wilted late, pilfered away fourth-quarter leads to the mediocre and well-heeled, arriving in Boston with a confusing 18-15 record.
This was a different Wizards collaboration for a night in New England, a place they had not won since April 16, 2014, a stretch of five regular-season games and last season’s four series-deciding losses in the Eastern Conference semifinals. For a night, the Wizards looked like the group that was supposed to be a contender in the Eastern Conference following a 111-103 win on Christmas Day on Monday.
Finding this level has been difficult for the Wizards this season. Injuries, unbalanced play, day-to-day malaise have restricted progress. So far, the group has been wondering where last season’s 49-win team went. Why they haven’t been in the upper tier of the Eastern Conference. Why they play down to mediocre teams, often losing in the fourth quarter and, at times, getting blown out.
Monday’s hoopla helped. The game was on national television against a restructured rival. TD Garden was the last place the Wizards played basketball last season. There was still lingering irritation among Markieff Morris and Al Horford. There was still Washington trying to prove it belongs with the Eastern Conference leaders. A lot of easy motivation sunk into the evening and produced a result yet to be seen this season.
“This is as close as we’ve played this year to last year,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “Everybody was locked-in during timeouts. Whatever they did before the game, we need to keep doing it. It’s obviously a special environment we’re playing in on Christmas day, but you have to do this for 82 games and not let the ups and down of a long season control your emotions. I thought [Monday] was as good as we could possibly play.”
Down 92-89, it appeared the Celtics were going to push their streak against Washington to 10 consecutive wins. That was before the Wizards put together a stunning 12-0 run that ended with a Bradley Beal dunk on the break to push the Wizards in front by seven points.
Before the night ended, Kelly Oubre Jr. was taunting the crowd, Beal was flexing and hopping and the Wizards had walked away with a key win that may be looked back at as an important moment in the season — as long as it is backed up against last-place Atlanta on Wednesday.
“If we’re going to continue to play that game the way we played the first three, three-and-a-half, even four quarters, continue to share the ball, John [Wall] is going to be the head of the snake, he’s going to continue to find people, we’re going to be unstoppable,” Marcin Gortat said. “We can beat anybody in this league. Again, this is the story of this team for many, many years. We had games where we played great and we were sharing the ball and we have games where people are trying to do everything on their own. I’m glad today that we showed up as a team.”
Beal scored 25 points, Wall had 21 and Otto Porter scored 20. Six Washington players finished in double-figures. They were balanced and scrappy.
“The feel of the game and the flow of the game was what we wanted it to be,” Beal said. “Regardless if we were making shots, that’s exactly the way we want to play.”
Porter cooked in the third quarter. He scored 12 points, opening the quarter with a 3-pointer. He went 4-for-5 from the field in the third on is way to 19 points total by the end of it.
Porter was also part of the Wizards’ shifting lineups. Morris was slotted in at center on occasion as Brooks often used a small lineup to counter the Celtics’ length. Washington built its third quarter lead 11 points before the Celtics chopped it to four by the end of the quarter. The Wizards had a final 12 minutes to do something they had been so poor at this season: sustain a late lead. That late rally allowed them to.
Lining up the first-half numbers would suggest a different outcome by halftime. The Wizards shot 43.5 percent from the field, a dismal 18.2 percent from behind the 3-point line and were 8-for-13 (61.5 percent) from the free throw line. Yet, after Kyrie Irving’s final shot of the quarter bounced off the rim, the Wizards moved into the locker room with a two-point lead.
They controlled a large portion of the half. Their defense, emboldened by strong interior help, was more lively than recent games. They outscored the Celtics 12-6 in fastbreak points because of it.
Beal was glad to visit the building and not see defensive scourge Avery Bradley crouched in a green uniform. As part of the Celtics’ offseason overhaul, Bradley was traded to the Detroit Pistons. So, instead of Bradley, Beal faced longer, but younger defenders like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. At halftime, he had 15 points despite missing two free throws and both of his 3-point attempts.
Oubre joined Beal among the effective Wizards players in the first half. Oubre was booed when he entered the game because of his playoff bumping of Kelly Olynyk in the Eastern Conference semifinals in May. His activity amid the animosity produced nine points in the half. Three of his field goals were dunks.
By the end, he was among those rejoicing for a night before a team dinner at the hotel. The Wizards had come to Boston on the NBA’s biggest night of the regular season and walked out with a smile for once. If they can hold the expression is the next question.