BOSTON — This season, when the Washington Wizards grew in grit and confidence, players often stated the goal of meeting the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals. The Wizards so badly wanted this May matchup. Their yearning even prompted star point guard John Wall to proclaim how the entirety of the 2016-17 season would be a “waste” if Washington failed to book the trip.
Late on Monday night, as the Boston Celtics’ 115-105 win appeared imminent, chants of “We Want Cleveland!” filled TD Garden. The sing-song cadence had to sound like taunts to the Wizards’ starters, most of whom were seated on the bench while the reserves who could not lessen their load unceremoniously closed Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, as well as the season.
When the 2016-17 Wizards season gets annotated in a bright red pen, the chapters on defense and team depth will receive the harshest marks. Unsurprisingly, in the team’s biggest game of the season, these flaws would reveal themselves again.
In the second half, the Wizards succumbed to a rain of threes from unlikely Game 7 heroes and gave up 62 points.
“It’s been a trend for us,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said about the team’s defensive lapses. “Just staying in the moment, staying locked into it defensively. Not worried about our offense. . . . Every time we look at these box scores, it’s 100-plus points, you know. That’s never the problem. It’s 115 to 120 or however many we’re giving up.”
While balance and depth defined Boston, who got 26 unexpected points from reserve forward Kelly Olynyk, the Wizards could only rely on four starters. Beal had his best game of the series, with 38 points (12 of 22 from the field with five three-pointers), while Otto Porter Jr. bounced back from a scoreless Game 6 to contribute 20 points and 10 rebounds. Markieff Morris also shot efficiently and finished with 18 points and nine rebounds.
Days after his season-saving three in Game 6, Wall carried that momentum early — making 6 of 10 from the field and scoring 13 points in the first half — but then faded to the background, making only two more shots and closing with 18 points and 11 assists.
The drop off from Wall was more dramatic. Washington received little from its rotation of big men: Starting center Marcin Gortat did not score a point until 4:41 remained in the third quarter. And while Gortat collected turnovers (four), his backup, Ian Mahinmi, became a magnet for whistles: four fouls in 10 minutes, no rebounds and no points.
Mahinmi wasn’t alone. Boston outscored Washington’s bench 48-5, and no Washington reserve scored a point in the second half — likely because Coach Scott Brooks needed to trim his rotation to its bare bones. His explanation rang with a familiar tune.
“I was definitely going to shorten the rotation, go with guys, I felt, that [were] going to give us the best chance to keep this game within reach,” Brooks said.
Brandon Jennings came to Washington to bolster the backcourt depth, but in the second half of Game 7, he appeared on the court for nine seconds.
Another late addition to the roster, Bojan Bogdanovic, was on the court when Boston made its decisive push. Beal drained another three-pointer for a 79-76 lead with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, but Washington’s poor perimeter defense soon got drenched by a storm of threes in Boston’s 9-0 quarter-closing run.
Kelly Oubre Jr., who would have moved into the starting lineup for Game 2 had Morris not recovered from a severely sprained ankle, appeared on the floor less than the ball boys Monday night. For a defensive possession near the end of the first half, Oubre finally got off the bench for six meaningless seconds. He didn’t appear again.
Gortat responded to a question about the workloads on Beal and Wall: “They’re the leaders of the team and they’re going to do a lot of stuff, but we got to help them. Role players got to help them. The bench got to help them and we got to do what we can, but at the end of the day it’s a team effort.
“They also have to make the right plays,” Gortat went on. “Not only make shots, but get us involved and play as a team. I think there are times they are outstanding and they are great, but they’re trying to do a little too much on their own and we’re falling apart. But again, we lost as a team today, and that’s painful.”
While Washington struggled with this concept, Boston sent help to its core players. Isaiah Thomas didn’t need to be special, although he finished with 29 points, because reserves filled in the space. Olynyk didn’t wear all black to the game, as many of his teammates did for Game 6, but he served as the improbable grim reaper. Olynyk surprised Washington with his 26 points (10 for 14 with two threes), and Marcus Smart contributed 13 points with another pair of threes. As a team, Boston shot 53.2 percent and hit 11 back-breaking shots from beyond the arc.
“We needed it,” Olynyk said of the bench impact. “That’s a tough team that we played seven tough games against, and they can score. We needed to help out the starters, help out Isaiah.”
Skill led the Wizards to a 55-53 halftime advantage, but this series would ultimately be decided by the down-and-dirty side of basketball. Players had to sell out their bodies to compete for rebounds, and almost every trip to the rim ended with someone on the parquet floor. Far too often this year, the Wizards have retreated from this kind of fight if their offense isn’t flowing.
With their season in the balance, this instinct showed in the worst time.
TD Garden seemed to shake from 18,624 fans releasing nervous energy that had been pent up earlier in the game. Although Beal tried to shoot hope back into his team — scoring 12 points in the fourth quarter — Boston spent the rest of the game delivering the final blow in this rivalry.
Now Boston gets the champs. And Washington returns home, with one of the best seasons in franchise history in the books but a sting that will last through the summer.
“It’s going to be a while for me. I hate losing,” Beal said. “Especially [because] we feel like we’re the better team.”