Make it plain, Isaiah Thomas. Make it plain.
“We don’t like them,” the Boston Celtics’ star guard said last week, “and they don’t like us.”
Don’t mince words, Markieff Morris: what were you thinking during that amazing 26-0 third-quarter run Sunday night in Game 4 of your Washinton Wizards’ series against Boston?
“Blow them the (bleep) out,” Morris said. “Keep pressing them. Go up 50 if we can.”
This isn’t James Harden and Russell Westbrook jersey, good and close friends, squaring off in the first round. This isn’t LeBron James patting an entire nation on its head in a semifinal series devoid of any drama. There is good old fashioned hatred between Boston and Washington, two teams desperate to break through and reach the conference finals — for the first time since 2012 for the Celtics, for the first time since 1979 (!) for the Wizards’ limited jerseys.
All the nonsense between the teams in the regular season — Jae Crowder’s finger wag in John Wall’s face, the funeral game, and so on — pales and fades when you get to this point of the season, with their Eastern Conference semifinal series tied at 2-2 after Washington’s blowout win over Boston Sunday.
Make no mistake: James is still That Dude. And as such, his Cavs are still the favorites in the Eastern Conference — this season, next season, and maybe another one or two afterward. But at some point, James will — probably — start his decline. Someone will ascend in the East and have an opportunity to win championships.
This Celtics-Wizards series is one of the first true on-court rounds of that multi-year, multi-team, multi-superstar battle. That the two teams really have animosity toward one another only adds spice to the stew. You don’t see this much anymore. And if Boston and Washington wind up facing each other several times in future playoffs for high stakes, so much the better, for them and the league.
“They have their core guys; we have our core guys,” Wall said last week. “Teams always make adjustments, but you have these two teams, and I feel like we’re the next two teams. We feel like we’re the next team that can be right behind Cleveland, or on top of Cleveland, and these guys feel the same way. I don’t feel like there’s no better matchup that you want to have in the second round, to test with, to see who goes to go play against whoever wins the (other) series.”
You don’t have to squint much to see a near future where either Boston or Washington could break through and win a conference title, given their respective offensive strengths and the Cavs’ defensive issues — at least, Cleveland’s current version.
“I can speak for everyone on our team — we all believe that we have a shot this year, if we play the right way,” Celtics guard Avery Bradley said last week.
“I feel like the way we’re playing right now can challenge any team,” Bradley said. “As long as we continue to play this way and move the ball the way we’re moving it, and Isaiah’s playing at a high level, and we’re prepared to knock down wide open shots, it’s hard for any team to guard us, and I like our chances. I feel like if I didn’t like our chances, I’m in the wrong sport, if we don’t believe in each other.”
Of course, James has been crushing the dreams of Next Men Up in the east for almost a decade now.
“I feel like I just took another step in my career,” Wall said. “I’ve been in situations where, been in closeout games, I didn’t close the deal. Just like I said, just the confidence and the ability me and Brad have in our talent, our ability to score the ball and find teammates, and not just do it on the offensive end of the floor, but at the defensive end also, it’s been a career year for me.
“It’s a year where I want to go further than the second round, where I’ve been two times before in my career. And we’ve got a great team. This is a great Celtics team that we’ve been battling with in the regular season. We know it’s a new season now, but every team has won their home games.”
The Wizards’ key question is what to do with Porter, who led the league in 3-point percentage for large stretches of the season before finishing fourth. Re-signing Porter for what will surely be in excess of $100 million will almost certainly mean owner Ted Leonsis will go into the luxury tax next season, with Beal already on a max deal and Wall eligible for either a three-year extension this summer or a potential $200 million deal in 2019 if he meets the criteria for the new Designated Player Exception for veterans.
But it would also mean the Wizards would get all of what should be Porter’s most productive seasons, along with Beal’s and Wall’s. Or, the Wizards could go all in and make their own bid for George this summer, and take a chance they could re-sign him in 2018. Would George really rather play with kids who are years away in L.A. with the Lakers, or have a real shot at beating James in the next couple of years in Boston or D.C.?
“We have a competitive young team that still has a lot of room for growth, and has shown growth in the past two or three years,” Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld said. “John and Brad have been to multiple playoff rounds; this is their third time in four years we’ve been in the second round. But right now, we’re focusing on (Boston).”
With any luck, these two teams will continue to have one another’s attention this time of year for some time to come.