At first blush, the 2017 playoffs promised some firework factory-level pyrotechnics. Houston-OKC was a first round matchup (!), with two team-defining MVP candidates battling straight out the gates. The reigning champ Cavs played poorly enough at the end of the season to be knocked down a peg, promising maybe a rockier road at the less privileged No. 2 seed. Even Golden State looked like they might suffer a handicap as Kevin Durant was questionable with an injury.
But things played out in a predictable pattern: both the Cavs and the Warriors waltzed through two straight sweeps; the OKC-Houston series came down to who had a better roster. And even when the Rockets' next thrilling matchup against the Spurs was poised to come to a dramatic finish—with a must-win for Houston at home—James Harden fizzled out with an inexplicable non-appearance. Yes, the cookie-cut narrative eventually chomped everything into shape. That is, except for the other half of the Eastern Conference bracket that didn't have a King in it.
We've grown accustomed to getting the full narrative of the cream of the crop. Steph Curry's emergence is now played out. So is LeBron's constant reaffirmation as he approaches the asymptote of GOATness. But the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards have carved up their own scripts in the shadows of the typically dreary Eastern Conference. And last night was the their showcase.
The East's No. 1 Celtics marched into the Wizards' Verizon Center with a 3-2 series lead, literally decked out in black for a funeral. Little did they realize that it would later seem like a step in the march to their own funeral. Yes, Isaiah Thomas did some insane things, going 5-13 from three and racking up nearly a third of the Celtics' points on the night. But it wasn't a deep enough dig to throw dirt on the casket.
The John Wall-led Wizards, on the other hand, were next-level spectacular last night, zipping the ball through the lane in a telekinetic series of assists. The game was close—after the first half, the point differential didn't spike above six points. Wall's eventual clutch shooting (see below) overshadowed him going only 9-for-25 from the field. But he more-than compensated for it with drives, which often resemble a WD-40'd-up glide along a track to the bucket. (It's hard to believe that clips of Wall aren't sped up; his foot speed is blinding.)
But Wall's performance was topped by an even mightier, yet quieter performance that'll likely fall between the cracks from last night's explosive ending—that of Bradley Beal, who dropped 33 points, going 15-26 from the field. It was a stellar performance, and he scored a spectacular second-to-last bucket of the game.
But when you're the emerging young superstar John Wall, who drills a clutch three in the final seconds of the game to force Game 7, you're going to be the one deserving of highlight reels like this one:
The game came down to the liquid nitrogen coursing through Wall's veins, as he handled the Wizards' final inbounds pass with ease. Just seconds earlier, Al Horford grazed the glass for a bank that would put the Celtics up two with 7.7 seconds left, causing Washington's bench to sweat bullets. But Wall was cunning with the play, dragging his man across the inbounds defender to leave both tangled and Wall with a deep three attempt. The ball fired off of his fingertips at the end of a full extension, and slapped the back of the rim, folding up the net on its way through. It was just his second made three on the night.
Isaiah Thomas had the final touch of the game under double coverage, but it couldn't quite ride the same magic feeling that Wall had on his own home court. It was almost as if the crowd themselves rejected the ball. Game—at 92-91.
The Wizards' celebrations then got delightfully loopy. John Wall jumped up on the announcers' table, tore at his jersey, and roared to the elated crowd. On his way into the tunnel, Markieff Morris spotted Stephen A. Smith, and delivered him an ebullient slap upside the backside, to the erogenous bemusement of Mr. Preposterous himself.
It's the kind of feeling the Wizards deserve out of a playoff game. It's the kind of feeling you deserve out of a playoff game. Not some kind of simpering, limp trot to exit interviews. This is some goddamn playoff basketball we're watching right now. You, dear basketball fan, have earned this—after these playoffs.
It's hard to tell what will play out next. Washington could ride these effervescent feelings into the next game and eventually the next round. The Celtics could claim their dominance over the Wizards as No. 1 in the East. But one thing is for sure: the perhaps over-rested Cavs haven't come across this kind of playoff intensity yet. And they should be scared by it.