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The Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards faced off Monday night in Washington D.C. Coming into the game, both teams were on streaks. Washington had won two in a row, whereas Boston had lost the last three, including two tough losses against Orlando and Los Angeles (Lakers), games in which Boston held leads late in the game but eventually fell due mainly to a stagnant offense. This game saw a reversal of both teams’ fortunes, however, as a strong fourth quarter powered the Celtics to victory, 99-88.
Boston’s offense was streaky against the Wizards. At times, they were making passes, finding open men, and draining shots. At other times, they were committing turnovers, playing out of control, and making bad offensive decisions. For the first time in a long time, the best offense the Celtics played was in the fourth quarter. They minimized turnovers, sank free throws, and drove aggressively into the paint. This led to easier shots and several foul calls that put them on the line early and often. This helped them overcome what for three quarters was a large disparity in free throws taken.
The offensive star of the game, once again, was Rajon Rondo. He was the key to the offense, racking up 12 assists to go along with his 17 points. This strong distribution of the ball (24 total assists) enabled six different players to score in the double digits: every starter except for Kendrick Perkins, plus Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen . This was a team that went inside early and often. They put up 36 points in the paint, as opposed to just 9 points from beyond the arc. Despite the Wizards’ apparent height advantages, the Celtics were content to go right at them early and often.
The Celtics did two things really well tonight. First off, they defended well against the three-pointer, allowing only a single trey to fall, despite ten attempts. Additionally, they finally out-rebounded a team. Against as strong an offensive rebounding team as Washington, this is doubly impressive. While the Celtics had some early trouble with fouls, they bore down in the second half and greatly reduced their frequency of putting the Wizards on the free throw line. This was the first game in awhile were the defense did not falter in the fourth quarter. They held the Wizards to just 10 points in the final 12 minutes, and it helped them turn a small deficit into a big lead.
Paul Pierce had his ankle rolled over by Caron Butler in the first half and left the game. He returned in the third quarter and seemed OK, but Doc Rivers kept him out of the fourth quarter to rest the injury, which Pierce calls an ankle sprain.
“I’ll get some X-rays tomorrow, but I think it’s not going to be too bad,” Pierce told reporters after the game, adding that he thought it was a sprain. “I would have known by now [if it was broken]. I think I’ll be all right.”
With any luck, this game saw the death of the January Celtics and the birth of the February Celtics. The January Celtics, as epitomized by the first half, were known for poor shooting, a lack of energy and aggression (particularly late in games), and an inability to close out games in which they held late leads. The February Celtics, as shown by the second half, are just the opposite. Hopefully this will be a team that gets stronger as the game goes on. This will be a team that comes into the fourth quarter and keeps the foot on the throat of the opposing team. This will be a team that does not back down, unafraid to either go into the paint or kick out to the perimeter.
The early successes of the Celtics this season can be attributed to the unpredictability of the offense and the stiffness of the defense. We saw the return of that in the second half. The next step is to be able to do it on a nightly basis.