It became a game about depth.
Washington led in the third quarter when coach Scott Brooks had to turn to his bench. Jason Smith was -10 in just over three minutes, the Celtics closed the third quarter on a run that extended to an 18-2 run into the start of the fourth and gave then a comfortable lead. John Wall missed his last nine shots and was scoreless in the fourth, in large part because his legs got tired, Brooks couldn’t trust Brandon Jennings again (after a horrible first half) and tried to ride his backcourt the entire second half.
Meanwhile, Kelly Olynyk came in and dropped 26 off the bench, 14 of those in the fourth quarter, and changed the game.
“They was paying a lot of attention to Isaiah (Thomas), teams are gonna do that, and he got rid of the ball quickly and put us in a position to make plays in 4-on-3 basketball,” Olynyk said after the game.
Boston got 29 points and 12 assists from Isaiah Thomas and 48 from its bench — including reserves Olynyk and Marcus Smart making plays down the stretch — and that was enough beat the Wizards 115-105 in Game 7.
Boston advances and will host Cleveland in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday.
But as it has been the case since the start of the year, the Wizards bench could not be trusted. Any lineup with at least one bench player on the court combined to be -19 in 16 minutes. No player from the Wizards bench scored after 6:56 of the 2nd quarter.
Boston, on the other hand, had a bench that won them the game.
“I think the bench was a big factor in Game 5 (a Boston win at home) and Game 7 certainly was as well,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Throughout the series, the home team’s bench seemed to play really well. I thought our guys played really well. Obviously, Kelly gave us that enormous lift of scoring in the fourth quarter, but really in the first half as well, he had 12 at halftime on 5-of-7, and I thought Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart were really good.”
The game certainly was dramatic, and it had the Celtics fans in full throat most of the game. The first quarter was a yo-yo affair, the Celtics got up 8, and then the Wizards came back to tie it, the Celtics went back up by 7, and the Wizards tied it again. It ended with the Celtics up four. The second quarter stayed closer throughout. The Wizards bench defensive rotations were sad, which helped Olynyk get clean looks. On the other side Otto Porter, who had been scoreless in Game 6, had 12 points and 7 boards in the first half (he finished with 20 and 9).
Boston’s biggest problem was being 3-of-12 from three in first half, and that allowed the Wizards to have a 55-53 lead at the half.
Wizards started second half just hunting Thomas, something they didn’t do enough in this series. Whoever he is guarding, the Wizards tried to post him up. Washington’s starters played well and the Wizards led much of the third, but late in the third the bench came in — Smith blew a defensive coverage within seconds of entering the game — and Boston closed the quarter on a 13-3 run to lead 85-79 after three. Boston hit four of its last six from three, and that helped change the dynamic.
That run extended to 18-2 over four minutes across the quarters for the Celtics. Washington went back to their starters around the 10-minute mark, and quickly it was a 7-0 Wizards run.
But the Wizards could never fully close the gap (they did get it to four). Olynyk and Thomas made plays for Boston, while Beal and Wall’s legs turned to jelly.
It was another step forward for a young and improving Celtics team. They should savor it.
For a day, then the biggest test comes to town.