Jayson Tatum found the mismatch. The Boston Celtics forward hunted down the considerably smaller Ish Smith, backing the point guard up in the post before turning around and firing off a jump hook.
The shot went in. Just as they had practically all night.
On a night when the Wizards needed a victory to secure a playoff spot, Washington had no answer for Tatum and the Celtics in Tuesday’s 118-100 loss at TD Garden in the NBA’s play-in tournament. Tatum finished with 50 points, sending the Wizards to a must-win game against the No. 9 Indiana Pacers on Thursday at Capital One Arena.
The Wizards now have to beat the Pacers in order to make the postseason as the eighth seed. The Celtics move on to face the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets.
Washington’s inability to stop Tatum was one of many disappointments for the Wizards in such a crucial game. Stars Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook combined couldn’t match Tatum on the scoreboard — the Wizards duo put up just 22 and 20 points respectively. Others like Rui Hachimura (8 points, five fouls) and Davis Bertans (4 points, 0-of-7 from 3) underwhelmed.
The Wizards spent months grinding away to move up the standings. So much had gone wrong for Washington earlier in the season — a coronavirus outbreak, injuries, players not performing at their usual level — that the thought of Washington making even the play-in seemed like a pipe-dream. But the Wizards found a rhythm, winning 17 of their last 23 to storm back in the playoff picture.
The irony, of course, is that the Wizards finished the regular season eighth thanks to a come-from-behind win over the Charlotte Hornets — meaning under the old system, Tuesday’s play-in game wouldn’t have been necessary. The Wizards, though, embraced the play-in all along, pushing back against the criticism lobbied by those like LeBron James and Mark Cuban.
Coach Scott Brooks said he was a fan of the idea, telling reporters that he wouldn’t change his opinion despite the Wizards now needing to play an extra game or two to earn a playoff spot.
From the tip, it was clear that clinching a playoff berth would not come easy for the Wizards. Shots rolled in and out of the rim, leading to a cold-shooting first quarter from Washington — particularly from deep. Beal, still dealing with a hamstring injury, started slow. And the Celtics were aggressive, getting Washington’s Hachimura and Daniel Gafford into foul trouble.
Smith, though, gave the Wizards a glimmer of hope.
The speedy 6-foot point guard came off the bench to keep the game within reach, scoring in short bursts and staying active on the glass. Over a nine-minute stretch, Smith went 5-of-7 from the field and scored 11 points — cutting into Boston’s lead.
Smith helped Washington go on a 21-7 run that resulted in the Wizards going ahead. Washington even led 54-52 at the half, capped off with a thunderous putback dunk from Westbrook in the final seconds.
That hope was short-lived. Tatum made sure of that. Prior to Tuesday’s game, Tatum had averaged 23 points per game against Washington in three meetings this season. But in the third quarter alone, Tatum scored 23 points — giving him 41 going into the fourth.
The Wizards didn’t help matters, either. Hachimura picked up his fourth foul 35 seconds after halftime — putting the Wizards at a size disadvantage. Brooks resorted to using a four-guard lineup for a stretch, giving Tatum room to hunt down mismatch after mismatch.
Boston’s Kemba Walker also added 29 points.