The Washington Wizards spent the first two games of these Eastern Conference semifinals building leads and losing them, coming home in a 2-0 hole to the top-seeded Boston Celtics. In Thursday’s Game 3, they set a physical tone early, built another big lead and maintained the edge en route to a 116-89 win.
Following the game, both sides had their interpretations about the style of play — Boston guard Isaiah Thomas felt that officials lost control, while Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. noted how his teammates simply played hard. One thing was clear: For the first time in this series, Wizards’ rugged side was as much on display as their abundant skills.
After Washington opened a 39-17 lead, tempers stopped the free-flowing action. Early in the second quarter, reserve forward Kelly Oubre Jr. was ejected for steamrolling Celtics 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk.
By the fourth quarter, with Washington ahead by 26 points, the game descended into a hail of technical fouls. In the aftermath, both benches were standing, coaches were barking at officials, and the backup point guards, Brandon Jennings and Boston’s Terry Rozier, were sent to the locker rooms.
In all, eight technical fouls dotted a game with no shortage of shoving and smack-talking. Despite the extracurriculars, the Wizards maintained enough focus to climb back into this best-of-seven series.
“We want to make sure that we just play basketball, and I thought that’s what we’ve been trying to do,” Coach Scott Brooks said.
John Wall scored a game-high 24 points to go along with eight assists and three steals, while Porter carried the offensive load early for 19 points and Marcin Gortat finished with 13 points and 16 rebounds. Bojan Bogdanovic scored 19 off the bench.
The big difference for the Wizards from the first two games was stout defense, which dominated the night and limited Boston to 35.1 percent shooting and Thomas to 13 points. Thomas entered averaging 43 points over the first two games.
“I don’t think it was as much about Isaiah as it was the whole team,” Boston Coach Brad Stevens said. “They were really into the passing lanes. They were really into the ball. They were really aggressive.”
Unlike the previous two games, when the Wizards blew double-digit leads en route to losses, they opened the night on a torrent and closed with the same force. Bradley Beal broke out of a cold stretch by scoring the first seven points for the Wizards.
“It was important. I just wanted to get off to a good start, good rhythm,” Beal said. “Feel like I ain’t made [anything] since days. But it was good. It was a good start.”
Then, with the score tied at 12, his teammates took over the game.
Boston got sloppy, committing three straight turnovers, while Porter and Bogdanovic grew aggressive, sparking a 22-0 run. When Wall stepped to the line with 1:29 remaining in the quarter, the chant of “M-V-P!” filling Verizon Center, his free throws lifted the Wizards to a 34-12 lead.
Meanwhile, Thomas was a non-factor. Thomas made just 3 of 8 from the field, the fewest made shots and attempts of his postseason.
“They hit first,” Thomas said. “They set the tone, and then the refs couldn’t control the game after that.”
Early in the second quarter, Olynyk extended his elbow and leveled Oubre on a screen. Oubre’s head snapped back, and he crumpled to the hardwood. Although the officials immediately caught the illegal play and called an offensive foul, Oubre popped up with his hands balled into fists.
Since Game 2, Olynyk has thrown a shoulder here, an elbow there, and Oubre has often been the target. By Thursday, the contact continued in the first quarter when Olynyk bumped Oubre and, in the same Celtics possession, delivered a hip-check while setting a screen for Thomas, who flailed his arm at Oubre. Then at the 10:45 mark, Olynyk once again rammed into Oubre, extending both arms to his upper body.
Finally, with 9:11 remaining in the second quarter, Oubre had enough with the elbows. He charged after Olynyk, and the big man hit the floor, perhaps exaggerating the blow.
“We’ve got to control our emotions. We can’t respond that way,” Brooks said. “But when you get hit in the head a few times . . . you might respond that way, and I think that’s what he did. I’m not saying that was the right thing to do. We have to focus on playing basketball.”
Though Oubre, who did not speak to reporters after the game, was assessed a flagrant-two and automatic ejection, he was serenaded by the crowd before leaving, with fans chanting “KEL-LY OU-BRE!” The moment only energized his teammates.
The lead continued to grow, with the Wizards’ confidence matching it. After his own herculean drives to the rim, Wall curled his lips and mean-mugged for effect. Beal stuck out his tongue and excitedly clapped his hands after drawing an offensive foul on Al Horford — though Beal made only 4 of 12 shots, his overall effort proved that he still could be engaged in the game. When conducting his on-court interview after the game, Beal waved his arms at the crowd, still thriving from the energy of the night.