There might not be the same level of hatred, vitriol, and brutality as what we were accustomed to seeing from bitter rivals in the Eastern Conference back in the 1980’s and 1990’s. But, it’s good to see that there are still two teams out there who just plain don’t like each other, and aren’t afraid to make it well known.
Of course, for NBA fans, the fact that the two of them — namely, the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards — are squaring off against each other in a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, it’s even better. From the Jae Crowder-and-Randy-Wittman dustup in 2016, to the “funeral game” in the subsequent season, as well as all the sniping in the media back and forth, the level of animus between the two teams should make for one hell of a series.
For observers around the league, but especially fans of the Celtics, the question must be asked: which Boston team will show up in this series? Will it be the Celtics team that went down 2–0 to the 8th-seeded Chicago Bulls, while being outplayed and outclassed in those two games? Or will it be the team that bounced back and engineered a “reverse sweep” of the Bulls, winning four-straight games after said two-game deficit? Objective fans can make the argument that the entire series turned when Chicago lost the services of Rajon Rondo during game two. After a tumultuous season in Chicago, Rondo was the X-factor against Boston, seemingly knowing what the Celtics were going to do before they were going to do it themselves.
Boston can’t rely on a series-swinging injury, or the fact that their opponents are secretly aware of their own flaws (like the Bulls were), when playing the Wizards. Washington has shown a level of resilience that’s unique to this team, in comparison to squads of recent years. More importantly, this team wants to take on the very best that the East has to offer, in order to get where they think they can go (at least as far as the Eastern Conference Finals).
The edge, swagger, and toughness that the Wizards have shown at numerous points during the 2016–2017 season is certainly refreshing for fans in Washington. Forward Markieff Morris represents an enforcer of sorts, for the Wizards. He’s the “tough guy” who’s not afraid to get in the face of the opponent’s biggest and best player, say whatever he wants, and then double-down on those comments by publicly stating them in the media. His “MMA”-themed comments, in regards to the level of physicality that the Wizards showed against Atlanta earlier in the series (as well as his own physicality when playing against Paul Millsap), helped the Wizards “get in the heads” of the Hawks from the onset, making Atlanta focus more on the style of play the Wizards were using, versus the style of play they wanted to employ.
Superstar John Wall, who is quickly cementing his status as the best point guard in the Eastern Conference, is far more understated and composed in the media, but he has not been afraid to stare down opponents and give them a piece of his mind after making a big play. Bradley Beal is even more understated than Wall is, when it comes to the media, but plays the game with a quiet — although ferocious — tenacity. He’s well known for his ability to shoot the basketball and put up points in bushels, as witnessed by his 25.8 points per game on 46.2% shooting in the series against Atlanta, but his efforts on the defensive side of the floor have drawn praise from head coach Scott Brooks, and is certainly that the Celtics will have to take note of.
Boston’s strength is its depth. They have the tough guys (Crowder, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley), the utility guys, the bench, and the superstar (Isaiah Thomas). They have one of the brightest minds on the game leading their team (head coach Brad Stevens). But will that be enough to stop a Wizards team that has almost the same level of star power and depth?
We will see.