Heading into the 2020-21 NBA season, it's safe to say the Boston Celtics did not expect to be competing in the league's freshly instituted play-in tournament in order to qualify for postseason play. They were fresh off an Eastern Conference finals appearance in the Orlando bubble, and entered this season expected to contend for a high seed. As for the Washington Wizards, they pulled off a blockbuster trade over the offseason in which they landed Russell Westbrook to pair with Bradley Beal. In other words, there was plenty of optimism surrounding both squads.
However, due to a combination of injury issues, COVID protocols and chemistry concerns, neither the Celtics nor the Wizards got off to an especially strong start, and in turn both teams struggled to find consistency over the course of the campaign. The Wizards have played much better ball since the All-Star break, but they still finished the season under .500 (34-38), while the Celtics finished at exactly .500 (36-36) -- their worst winning percentage since the 2014-15 season. As a result, the two teams have to square off against each other in the first round of the play-in tournament.
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The winner of the game between Boston and Washington will secure the seventh seed in the East, and a first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. The loser will have to play the winner of the 9 vs. 10 play-in game between the Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets. The winner of that contest will be the East's eighth seed and face the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. Here's everything you need to know ahead of Tuesday's play-in game between the Celtics and Wizards.
(7) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Washington Wizards
- When: Tuesday, May 18 | 9 p.m. ET
- Where: TD Garden -- Boston, Massachusetts
- TV: TNT | Live stream: fuboTV
- Odds: WAS +100; BOS -120; O/U 232.5 (via William Hill Sportsbook)
1. Two teams trending in different directions
While final record is important, recent play is often a better indicator of how a team will perform in the postseason. A team that was hot to start a season but fell off over the course of the campaign could finish a season with a better overall record than a team that got off to a slow start but turned it on as the season progressed. Yet often the team that gets hot at the right time is more dangerous in the playoffs. In this case that fact favors the Wizards. Sure, the Celtics finished the season with a better record, but look how the two teams have fared recently.
Over their last 15 games, Washington has gone 10-5, which is one of the better marks in the league. Boston, on the other hand, has gone just 5-10 over its last 15 games, which obviously isn't ideal heading into postseason play. The Wizards have figured some things out and they appear to be playing their best ball at the right time, while the Celtics have largely looked lost over the last month. So, while the Celtics have the better record and are the higher seed, they're limping into the play-in tournament, while the Wizards enter riding the momentum that they've built in recent weeks. Confidence and momentum are important factors in basketball, and the Wizards appear to have the advantage in both categories.
2. Will Boston be able to overcome Jaylen Brown's absence?
When it comes to the Wizards, we know that they're going to get a huge percentage of their offensive production from the duo of Beal and Westbrook. That's their formula. For the Celtics, things aren't quite so set, as they'll be without their second-best player in Jaylen Brown, who is sidelined for the remainder of the season following wrist surgery. Brown enjoyed a breakout season, averaging 24.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game for the Celtics -- production that they've had a very tough time replacing since Brown went down. It's not a coincidence the Celtics have struggled as of late. They've gone just 2-5 since Brown has been out of the rotation.
Jayson Tatum is obviously Boston's go-to guy, and he's going to get his. However, without his sidekick it becomes easier for opponents, like the Wizards, to scheme against Tatum and limit his ability to be productive on the offensive end. This is where Boston will need other guys, like Kemba Walker, to step up and help Tatum with the scoring load. If the guard trio of Walker, Marcus Smart and Evan Fournier can all step up and have good games against Washington, the Celtics will have a good shot at securing the seventh seed. If not, it will be very tough for Boston to walk away with a win.
3. All eyes on Bradley Beal's health
If you watched Washington's final game of the regular season against the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday, you could tell that Beal wasn't at 100 percent. Beal, who has been dealing with a lingering hamstring injury, was laboring up and down the court and it was obvious that he was in some pain. Beal had missed the previous three games, and he admitted that he probably shouldn't have played in the finale, either. Ultimately, Beal played because he wanted to help his team secure playoff positioning. Now, though, the Wizards have to hope that he's alright for their game against the Celtics, and beyond. Beal himself acknowledged that he won't be at 100 percent for the contest.
"There's no setback. I didn't injure it any worse than it already, so that's positive," Beal said of the hamstring injury. "Obviously it won't be 100 percent. I've just got to manage it the best I can."
Even at less than 100 percent Beal can be a major difference-maker in the game, but the Wizards also have to be cautious with him because they obviously don't want the injury to develop into something worse. They'll likely monitor his minutes and make sure that he's feeling OK over the course of the contest. If Beal can come close to playing how he usually does, it will be a big boon for Washington. If not, then that's obviously an advantage for Boston.
The Celtics won two of three meetings between the two teams during the regular season, but they haven't played each other since February, and the Wizards are a much-improved team since then. If the Celtics were at full strength the story would be different, but without Jaylen Brown, they'll have a tough time keeping up with Washington on both ends and that could ultimately be the difference in the game. Pick: Wizards +1.5