Beginning on the last day of April and lasting through the middle of May in 2017, the Celtics and Washington engaged in a seven-game playoff series that appeared to be the start of something ultra-competitive and lasting. Instead, it lives as a reminder to embrace the NBA present and assume nothing more.
Each team held serve on its home floor in that series, with intensity and dramatics spilling all over the stage. With young and talented teams, this matchup figured to be good for a while.
But such is the quickly changing nature of the game that the rivalry never quite worked out. Two vastly different clubs will renew acquaintances this Wednesday at the Garden, with the Celtic star from that series, Isaiah Thomas, now plying his trade for the Wizards.
“I think we have three players left from the team we had in that series,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks. “I mean, that’s crazy, but that’s the reality of it. Boston’s definitely different, too.”
The Wizards took a harsh turn when John Wall began encountering knee issues in the fall of 2017. A year later, the problem was in his heel, and last February he had surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles’ tendon.
“You never anticipate injuries,” Brooks told the Herald. “You never do. That’s a part of the game that you don’t like to think about or prepare for. But when they happen, you have to scramble and you have to adapt. That’s basically what we’ve done. John has been out for basically two years and could be out most of this season.”
It will give Wall and Wizards fans time to think about what might have been, the kind of playoff basketball of which they got a whiff against the Celts.
“It was headed to a good rivalry,” Brooks said. “We had some great regular season games, and then that playoff series. There’s not a lot of series that go seven games, and that was a good one. But a lot of things change. You can look at Brad (Stevens) last year. He went through a lot of changes himself, and that’s part of it. If you don’t adapt, you get left off the boat.”
But while Brooks and the Wizards are trying to steer the ship through this season, it’s still easy to recall 2017.
“There’s a lot of things,” he said. “Obviously the tragedy that Isaiah went through (losing his sister). For him to be able to play during that, and then play at that level, is amazing. That tells you his toughness. Not a lot of players have that. But there were great things on our side, too — John’s Game 6 shot. It was a great series. Unfortunately for us, it ended the way it did. But then the injuries took place right after that.”
After the Wizards took Game 6, 92-91, Thomas had 29 and Kelly Olynyk 26 as the Celts overcame Bradley Beal’s 38 and close Washington out by 10, 115-105.
Then it all changed. Thomas was traded to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving, and the Wizards got hurt.
“It always happens, but very rarely does it happen as fast as it has for us,” said Brooks. “You know, when John got hurt, we had to do a lot of things differently. It takes another 82 games to get to the playoffs, and then you’ve got to lock in and do your best during those playoffs.
“But things always change. LeBron left, and it was open. Now Kawhi’s left, and it’s open again.”
Starting over, again
Speaking of Thomas, it’s been a hard road back from surgery on the hip that was a major problem in Boston. And then when he was getting ready for his fresh start in Washington, he suffered a thumb injury in workouts that required surgery.
But he was made a starter again this past week.
“It’s been a long road for me the past couple years,” he said after his first game with the first five. “(I) just really put in the work to finally get healthy and to be able to start. That says a lot about what I’ve done the last few years, but my biggest thing is taking advantage of the opportunity, whether I start or come off the bench. I know who I am. I’m one of the best basketball players in the world. It doesn’t affect me. I approach the game the same way. But, I mean, I am happy to be starting.”
Thomas said he never lost confidence.
“No, it’s not hard to remind myself who I am, because I have the most confidence in myself,” he said. “But there were days. It’s rehab, and for me to go through that for two years was tough, I’m not going to lie to you. It did break me at times, but it can’t storm forever. The sun eventually has to come out at some point. I had real faith in God, and I know that he can put you things that you can always handle. I have a great circle around me, great friends, great family. They’ve helped me through these past two years, so it’s just taking advantage of the situation. I chose the Wizards because they looked me in the eye and told me they would give me an opportunity and I can’t thank them enough.”
Monday vs. Dallas, 7:30 p.m. — The Mavericks made their big move last January, acquiring Kristaps Porzingis from the Knicks and then waiting for him to make it all the way back from a torn ACL suffered in February of 2018. It may take Dallas a while to truly find its stride, but with last season’s Rookie of the Year, Luka Doncic, in tow, you have to figure there are some good things on this club’s horizon. The Celtics had some luck throwing Marcus Smart at Porzingis in the past, but the 7-3 shooter will be even harder to deal with now that he has Doncic to attract attention.
Wednesday vs. Washington, 7:30 p.m. — The Wizards have had their issues this season, but as evidenced by them putting up 158 points (in regulation, mind you) in a one-point loss to Houston, they can be explosive. And with old friend Isaiah Thomas getting back in gear, his matchup with Kemba Walker alone may be worth the price of admission. This will be the Celtics’ last Garden game before heading out on a five-city tour of the West.
Friday at Golden State, 10:30 p.m. — Even with Kevin Durant leaving and Klay Thompson hurt and the Celtics a bit of an unknown quantity after the departure of three starters, ESPN still grabbed this game for national exposure last summer. But now that Steph Curry has a broken hand and others there have dealt with injury, the Warriors are now drifting south of .500. Casual NBA observers will learn some new player names when Golden State takes the floor.
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