The playoffs have a delightful way — or an annoying way — of making everything urgent. You can feel in control, but you can never feel comfortable. As a matter of fact, don’t feel anything. A fresh challenge is already flying toward your head.
Such constant bombardment distorts the concept of momentum. In the NBA postseason, there’s too much starting and stopping, too much reevaluating and adjusting, too much emotion and importance. The Washington Wizards didn’t break the Boston Celtics’ will with back-to-back blowout home victories, just like the Celtics didn’t faze the Wizards by winning the first two games despite being outplayed. Even when one team runs away with a series, it does so uphill sprint by uphill sprint.
So while the Wizards have played well enough to think they could’ve won all four games, while they have reason to believe the series is going their way, the pressure on them intensifies nonetheless. With the best-of-seven series tied at 2, the Wizards need to understand one thing as they return to Boston on Wednesday night: Game 5 is the most important of their season.
It’s not an elimination game, but it’s much bigger than Coach Scott Brooks cared to acknowledge Tuesday afternoon when he said after practice, “If we want to advance, we have to win a game up there. So we’re looking at this as the first crack to do that.”
Brooks isn’t wrong to say that. It’s factually correct. This is now a best-of-three series, and if the Wizards can win Game 6 at home, the Wizards must also capture either Game 5 or 7 in Boston to prevail. But it’s misleading to suggest Game 5 is merely a first crack at winning in Boston.
When a series is knotted at two, the next game takes on elevated significance. In NBA playoff history, the winner of Game 5 has gone on to win the series 83 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats and Info. After Houston evened its series with San Antonio on Sunday, Spurs guard Manu Ginobili left Game 4 declaring to reporters, “Game 5 is a Game 7.”
The 39-year-old Ginobili has won four NBA championships, a EuroLeague title and an Olympic gold medal. He isn’t prone to hyperbole.
First crack? No, the Wizards should consider it their best crack. The Celtics are woozy. Washington needs to win at TD Garden and close the series at home. It shouldn’t mess around and give Isaiah Thomas too many more chances. And it should want no part of a Game 7 in Boston.
No, the Wizards wouldn’t have to contend with Bill Russell or Larry Bird if this series went seven games. No, the teams wouldn’t be playing at the old Boston Garden, where the Celtics posted a 14-2 Game 7 mark. But tradition still matters. Ghosts awaken and roam as they wish.
“Then I think we should win the game, right?” Brooks said of Game 5.
You better, I told him.
“I think every game’s important,” Brooks said. “There’s no question. You do have the lead coming home if you win. That would be a great position, but that doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win the series. And then vice versa. You just focus on the game, playing well for 48 minutes. Hopefully, that will be good enough to win the game.”
Competitors shouldn’t focus on probability. They should just play. Sports are compelling because the athletes decide the outcome, and no matter how much we try to predict what will happen, there’s always room for LeBron James to suddenly appear from the Bermuda Triangle and block Andre Iguodala’s layup.
Yes, the Wizards could lose Game 5 and then claim the final two games and celebrate on Boston’s new-school parquet floor. But it would be much easier to finally win in Boston — this is attempt No. 5 of the season — and then close at home.
It would be much easier, even while acknowledging that Game 5 will be the toughest road game of the Wizards’ season. It’s even more challenging than going to Atlanta and finishing off the Hawks in Game 6 in the first round.
“It’s going to be real loud,” point guard John Wall anticipated. “It’s going to be better than the first two games. It’s an important game for those guys. It’s an important game for both of us, but more important for those guys, going back home. They understand if we get an opportunity to win there, we get a chance to close it out here. So they’re going to come out and be aggressive. They’re going to play better than they did here. And their fans are going to be amazing.”
The Wizards need to play with the urgency of a closeout game. As the team has grown during this era of Wall and Bradley Beal, there have been several maturity checks. This is the latest one. They’re playing good basketball. They’re repeating good habits and showing dominance even as the Celtics alter their game plans and probe at their weaknesses. Game 5 is an opportunity to take another step — and to land at the doorstep of a conference finals berth for the first time since 1979.
We know the Wizards can get within two victories of the conference finals. They’ve now advanced this far in all three of their playoff appearances with Wall and Beal. But winning a third game in a best-of-seven conference semifinals has been elusive, never mind a fourth. They lost to Indiana in six games in 2014. The next year, they lost in six to Atlanta, falling short because of a Wall hand injury and a little late-game misfortune.
Two years ago against the Hawks, the Wizards almost forced a Game 7, but Paul Pierce’s game-tying three-pointer was a fraction of a second too late. Now they have a chance to go deeper. For this era, it represents a natural progression. In franchise history, it would be a game-changing breakthrough after 38 years of struggle.
It’s not a stretch to consider Game 5 the most important since 1979. Then it would be replaced by Game 6 in importance because, well, that’s the playoffs.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge,” Brooks said. “There are a lot of things that we have to do well. We also feel that they’re going to have to do a lot of things well.”
Game 5 is a Game 7. It’s not a first crack. It’s the Wizards’ best path to eliminating a four-decade headache.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.