By Jason Keidel
So one team is playing it’s 30th Game 7. The other is trying to reach its first conference finals since 1979. One team is vying for its first conference finals since 2012, and has won four titles since 1979. The other is trying to reach its first conference finals since 1979. One team is home, where they’re 5-0 against tonight’s opponent. The other is trying to reach its first conference finals, on the road, where they are 0-5, since 1979.
The historical gulf between the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards is as wide as possible.
Of course, these aren’t your daddy’s, or grandaddy’s Celtics. Rosters aren’t stuffed with legends. You wont’ see Russell — who was 10-0 in Game 7s — or Cousy or Bird or Parrish stroll onto the court. Or even the Big Three of Pierce, Garnett, and Allen. It’s not even the same court, really. It’s not the old Boston Garden, where those white-hot playoff games were played in that playoff oven, the visitor’s locker room morphed into a pizza oven to sweat the energy out of the enemy before they even stepped on the floor.
But still you can’t ignore the clashing legacies between Boston and Washington. One is our nation’s capital, the other is the NBA’s capital, or was, for decades.
The Wizards aren’t just a forlorn franchise, but also a hard-luck team in a hard-luck town. This is also the home of the NHL’s Capitals, which, despite the singular greatness of their superstar Alex Ovechkin, still haven’t played in an Eastern Conference Finals. There are even whispers of the unthinkable, moving their best player for prospects, for a fresh start, to jam the reboot button for the team.
The baseball club, the Nationals, are a recent derivative of the Capitals — often loaded with talent but going cold when the moments are hottest. The Nats have made a pseudo-habit of reaching the MLB playoffs, then getting bounced well before the World Series. Unlike their predecessors, the Senators, who were a baseball punchline for decades, the Nats have the pitching, hitting, and perhaps the best player on the planet, Bryce Harper, who despite his sprawling resume of production, is still only 24 years old. And they are in first place, by a comfortable early margin, in the NL East.
But for now, for tonight, the eyes of the sports world are on the Wizards, and their star players, Bradley Beal and John Wall, who combined for 59 points in Game 6 — a one-point win secured by Wall’s clutch three-pointer in the final seconds. And while no one doubts their talent, perhaps their temerity will make the difference tonight, in Boston, which has no profound edge in ability. And tonight will speak in some measure to Wall’s status as a franchise player.
Though he’s been dazzling us since he was a standout freshman at Kentucky, Wall has yet to fashion his own signature NBA moment. Will Wall pounce on the moment, pivot off his big Game 6 and carry the Wizards on his shoulders? Or will he vanish, like James Harden did in the Western Conference, and render that big shot a big moment for a small team from a pseudo-star?
Since this series has gone to the final game, it should surprise few that some find the Wizards are a better team, or even more capable of giving the Cleveland Cavaliers a harder run for their money. Some pundits think Beal and Wall present more hazards for LeBron James than the diminutive Isaiah Thomas and a gaggle of role players. For all the cash and cachet Al Horford brought to Boston, he has not proven to be the kind of game-changer the Celtics expected, whereas the big guards the Wizards bring create matchup problems for Cleveland.
But none of it matters if Washington doesn’t win tonight. Boston can lose and still look up at that swath of championship banners. Not to mention they could end up with the top pick in this year’s draft lottery, courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets. This is about a team and town trying and dying to put itself on the sports map, to at least make the final four of the NBA, to break through the membrane of heartbreak and futility that has too often defined them. Just 48 minutes of wizardry, and Washington can say it matters a little bit more.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.