CHARLOTTE — The seeds of animosity were planted last season.
An early November blowout loss at the start of the 2015-16 season; profanity-laced woofing between an opponent and the head coach; a rogue forearm that sent a player into the concussion protocol. Individually, the incidents merely seem like footnotes in a long, taxing regular season. But these are the moments that cultivated the garden of hostility between the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics.
Over the course of the previous six games, which includes the four-game sweep by the Celtics last season, players from both teams have talked enough trash to crowd a landfill.
They’ve pointed fingers: John Wall last season after forcefully blocking Jae Crowder’s shot, then Crowder returning the favor this year by pushing his right index to the tip of Wall’s nose.
Their fouls have graduated to the flagrant variety and their bad blood has spilled — literally, in some incidences — beyond the court: Last summer, the teams fought over the same player, Al Horford, who eventually signed with Boston as a free agent.
On Tuesday night, it’s Round 3. Wall can see clearly what is blossoming between the teams.
“Yeah, I think it’s a little rivalry,” Wall said.
War of words
The teams’ last meeting on Jan. 11 proved costly for Wall. In the closing moments of the Wizards’ 117-108 loss, Wall and Crowder got into a verbal confrontation. The incident accelerated when Crowder extended his finger to Wall’s nose and security members rushed in to separate players. Later, Crowder continued the heated back-and-forth after the teams exited the TD Garden floor. Police officers lined the hallways to stand guard between the locker rooms. For his role in the incident, Wall was fined $15,000; Crowder received a $25,000 punishment for his actions.
“People are going to talk trash. People are going to bump here and there. It escalates to just an argument and stuff happens,” Wall said. “Everything was fine until he put his hands on my face. I’m good with arguing with anybody. I argue with a lot of people on the court, that’s how you get the game going. That’s how some people play better. I don’t mind that, but when you touch me in my private space, that’s going to escalate [to] somewhere else.”
After the Celtics’ practice Monday afternoon, Crowder told Boston reporters he did not expect residual carryover into the upcoming game.
“I lost $25,000, so you won’t see too much out of me,” Crowder said. “For real.”
Even so, Crowder did not seem too fond of the Wizards.
“They talk a little more. They say a little more disrespectful things than other teams,” Crowder said. “So that’s what escalated it.”
The yapping never seems to cease. Last January, Crowder was the player involved in the strange interaction with then-Wizards head coach Randy Wittman. Crowder accused Wittman of directing profanity at him during a tightly contested fourth quarter.
Wittman “was saying something about me being soft and bleep, bleep, bleep hitting me on the John Wall foul,” Crowder told reporters then.
The battle for Horford
In early July, Horford walked around his Atlanta neighborhood searching for answers. He had spent the first day of free agency holding a quartet of meetings at the Four Seasons then trimmed the list to just two teams: Washington and Boston.
The Wizards showed their interest swiftly, reaching out to Horford’s representatives at midnight July 1. Then the Wizards’ contingent showed up to present their case for why Horford should come to the District. General Manager Ernie Grunfeld did most of the talking, and his sell was enticing: Washington’s core of Wall, Beal and Otto Porter Jr. was intact and would be sticking around for some time; Horford would start in the four spot instead of having to battle against centers all season; and there was the promise of the soon-to-be constructed training facility, as well as the lure of playing in a cosmopolitan yet family-friendly area.
Horford asked good questions. He enjoyed the presentation of virtual reality, the pièce de résistance of the Wizards’ technology initiative. And he seemed to have an easy rapport with everyone in the room.
“I was very impressed with Ernie and our staff’s presentation. It gave me great insight to the vision of our team,” said Coach Scott Brooks, who attended the meeting along with Tommy Sheppard, senior vice president of basketball operations. “I was just new to the job, six, seven weeks in, and I was fired up after the presentation and I knew we had a chance to land a very, very good player.”
Boston was the final team to woo Horford that day. The Wizards brought along front office personnel, but the Celtics came with an army, including two team owners and their core players, Crowder, Kelly Olynyk and all-star Isaiah Thomas.
“We just gave our perspective of what it’s like to play in Boston for this team, for this franchise, and what it’s like to be a player here,” Olynyk said. “What it’s like to play for Coach [Brad] Stevens [and] I guess he liked what he heard.”
Wall reached out to Horford, trying to recruit the player via cellphone while rehabilitating from double knee surgery, but months later, Horford revealed just how significant the face-to-face interaction with potential teammates proved to be in making his decision.
“I had some hard conversations [with my wife] and then I went on my own, a long walk. It wasn’t an easy decision because I had to weigh so much and both teams are very appealing,” Horford recalled. “It was a hard decision. I just felt at the end, I felt like I was going to make more of an impact and I felt more comfortable here in Boston.”
After learning that Horford had picked Boston, Wall sent a congratulatory text message. He had no hard feelings. But on the court, players on both sides have expressed other notions.
“Of course things have happened in the past but at the same time, both teams want to beat each other. We desperately want to beat each other, really,” Porter said. “That’s basically what it comes down to. Two good teams. They beat us pretty good the last couple of years so we want to return the favor.”
Down and dirty
Often, the physical play by both teams has sparked the aggravation. Boston — with players like Crowder, Olynyk, Thomas and Marcus Smart, who always seems to be in the middle of a storm — has built its brand on playing hard. On Nov. 9 during the end of Washington’s 118-93 win over Boston, Wall grew frustrated by Smart’s defense and committed a flagrant-two foul against him. Nevertheless, Wall seems to take delight in the Celtics’ persona, which reminds him of the NBA’s rough-and-tumble past.
“They have some guys that play aggressive defense and are very aggressive, kind of like the old-school way,” Wall said. “I think [in] the new era a lot of people might call it ‘dirty’ because it’s a lot softer now in the league. But it’s not dirty to me. Those are guys [who] are physical. That’s how they play. That’s their calling card. You can’t do anything but respect it, but also I think at the same time the refs got to keep the game clear.”
That didn’t happen in the teams’ final 2015-16 regular season game, when Smart made a second-quarter drive to the basket and clocked Beal in the head. No foul was called but Beal had to leave the game, blood dripping out of his broken nose, after suffering a concussion. Then, following the Jan. 11 matchup, in which Smart pulled Beal to the ground, Porter called out the Celtics as a team that tries “to play dirty.” On Monday, far removed from the heat of that moment, Porter walked back that comment.
“It’s just a hard fought battle against them,” Porter said. “They’re a good team, and good teams bring the best out of you, and you try to play at that high level of caliber, but at the end of the day it’s all about winning. We want to win so badly and so do they. So it’s going to get a little feisty out there. . . . but at the same time everybody’s playing hard and it’s a good game to watch, especially for fans.”
Although Crowder has downplayed the rivalry — “I don’t look at it like that. It’s a basketball game,” he said — judging by the Wizards’ upcoming fashion choice, Tuesday night will not simply be another regular season game.
“We’re wearing all black to the game,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said. “So you know where we’re going with that. … We’re ready for whatever, man. Round three. Let’s get it.”