After The Shot, after John Wall saved a season that deserves preservation, Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks walked into a joyful locker room on Friday night already thinking about the next and greatest challenge.
“What’s the two best words in playoff basketball?” Brooks asked his team.
There was a pause.
“Game 7, right?”
They’ll have to take his word for it. Only three players on the Wizards roster have experienced Game 7: center Marcin Gortat, backup center Ian Mahinmi and backup point guard Brandon Jennings. Together, they have played five Game 7s. They have logged just 102 minutes and three seconds performing on this magical, manic stage.
The Boston Celtics will have to trust Brooks, too. They are the NBA’s most storied franchise, but the green worn by this version of the Celtics symbolizes their Game 7 inexperience. Boston has four players who know what this game is about: Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Gerald Green. The Celtics can’t even rely on Coach Brad Stevens, also a newbie, to give a speech about it.
Good luck, rooks.
“There’s a lot of power in having some naiveté,” Stevens said at the start of this series, and those words ring truest now because it would be paralyzing to have too deep an understanding of the magnitude of this game.
This is for a berth in the Eastern Conference finals, for a chance to challenge King James’s throne. And this will also frame how we discuss a budding Wizards-Celtics rivalry that has the potential to last a long while.
This could enhance the star power of John Wall and Isaiah Thomas, who are still underappreciated even though it’s becoming popular to lament that they are underappreciated. And this could determine the pecking order of the rising, young teams that could run the East once Cleveland’s time is done.
And then there’s this bundle of complication, packaged just for the Wizards, the residents of a doomed sports town: They represent another opportunity to free the District of despair. Roll your eyes as this is referenced again: It has been 19 years since a D.C. team made it to the conference finals in the NBA, NHL, NFL or MLB. The Capitals lost a second-round Game 7 to Pittsburgh at home last Wednesday. The Nationals lost a decisive Game 5 at home to the Los Angeles Dodgers last October. The Redskins are the Redskins, crazy, controversial and strangely irresistible.
Now here come the Wizards, comfortably naïve. They’re new to this. They’re new to Game 7, and interestingly, they don’t have the same level of “You always blow it!” playoff pressure that burdens their peers. Frankly, they haven’t been good enough to hurt you in the same way.
The Capitals have chased titles, building great regular season teams, seemingly getting closer but always failing to make a deep playoff run in the Alex Ovechkin era. They are the NHL’s version of “Tom and Jerry.” Those cats are always chasing the mouse, always getting humbled. For a team with just three postseason appearances, the Nationals have managed to cause agony, failing to advance and losing twice at home in series-deciding Game 5s.
The Redskins are an addictive sideshow. But the Wizards? This is just their seventh playoff appearance during the 19-year drought. Until this postseason, they hadn’t been higher than a No. 5 seed, which means they hadn’t enjoyed home-court advantage in a series. Even now, they’re just a No. 4 seed, not a regular season champion or prime contender. And when they’ve lost in the playoffs, you’ve understood why. Dwyane Wade led Miami past them in 2005. LeBron James and Cleveland eliminated them three straight years from 2006 to 2008. In 2014, they fell to the top-seeded Indiana Pacers. And in 2015, they lost to the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks, with Wall missing time because of a broken hand.
There was no dramatic playoff failure, just standard disappointment. Hopes didn’t rise to dangerous levels. The Wizards were still trying to awaken the city from apathy of years of being safely irrelevant.
Then this series started. As the Wizards and Celtics battled to a six-game draw, it became clear the Wizards were worthy of expectations. After Wall buried a three-pointer to push the series to a seventh game, they finally inspired some inescapable belief. They also inspired some fear.
Was Wall’s 26-footer a chance for a D.C. sports breakthrough? Or was it another reprieve? That is what Jayson Werth’s Game 4 walk-off homer turned out to be in 2012. That is what the Capitals’ rally from a 3-1 deficit turned out to be last week.
So there’s a lot of power in the Wizards’ naiveté. On Monday night, they won’t try to beat history, which is good because they have their city’s track record and the Celtics’ tradition competing against them. They will try to make history.
There’s a different mind-set to attacking than resisting. In Game 6, the Wizards saw how hard it was to fight off elimination. This time, they’re the road team, playing against a franchise that has an 18-4 record in home Game 7s. The Celtics have the home-court advantage, but they must live up to what being on that homecourt means. The Wizards have a simple objective.
“The pressure of playing in the NBA game is just playing hard,” Brooks said. “If you put pressure on ‘I have to make shots, I have to get 25, I have to get 35 or whatever,’ you’re probably going to set yourself up for maybe not a lot of success. But you just focus on playing hard and trying to take care of your teammates. I think that’s the pressure that needs to be applied on everybody. If you do that, you can live with the results.”
On the surface, Boston is an odd place to break a curse. Close your eyes, and you can hear the gravelly voice of Johnny Most shouting, “Havlicek stole the ball!” in Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference finals. You can feel the 88-degree heat inside the old Boston Garden in 1987 when the Celtics outlasted the Detroit Pistons in a sweaty Game 7. You can see the Celtics withstanding 47 points from Dominique Wilkins in 1988 and 45 from LeBron James in 2008 to win taxing series finales.
It’s a good thing these Wizards were born after most of that Celtics’ glory. It’s also a good thing that they don’t feel responsible for the 19 years the city has waited for a conference finalist or the 38 years their own franchise has endured without making it that far.
“Game 7s are fun,” Mahinmi said. “Actually, those games are . . . how do I say it? They’re easier to prepare because you’ve just got to go out there and give everything you have. It’s plain and simple. There is no, ‘I’m going to save this for the fourth quarter.’ If you lose, you go home. Mentally, you just relax, and you just go out there and do what you’ve been doing all year. It’s kind of a privilege to get to that point where you know one game is going to decide your whole season. I’m going to tell those guys it’s nothing to overthink.”
If they wanted to overthink, there would be plenty of fodder. They’ll just play, however. They’re about as unburdened as any local team can be in this situation.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.