WASHINGTON – One game into the playoffs, Paul Millsap said his Atlanta Hawks were playing basketball while the Washington Wizards were “playing MMA.”
One game into the second round, Isaiah Thomas had his tooth knocked out by an elbow from Otto Porter. Yes, with the backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal the Wizards like to get out in transition, but they’ve also showed a willingness — maybe even an eagerness — to physically mix it up.
Forward Markieff Morris didn’t even consider Washington’s Game 3 win against the Boston Celtics on Thursday night terribly physical despite eight technical fouls and three ejections.
“I felt like Atlanta was a little bit more physical, as far as our style. We can turn it up a notch and be more physical,” Morris said. “As long as we win, we don’t care how it goes.”
On Friday, the Celtics said Thomas had two other damaged teeth that required “extensive oral surgery to stabilize” and added that he “did not suffer a fractured or broken jaw.”
Thomas has a four-piece temporary bridge that cracked when he was re-injured and replaced at halftime of Game 3. Team doctors are prepared to replace them again, if necessary.
Morris is the engine of the Wizards’ edgy play, unafraid to bump and grind inside, get under the skin of opponents and trash-talk with the best of them. Since he arrived in a trade from Phoenix last year, some of that has rubbed off on teammates, like mild-mannered Kelly Oubre Jr. He was tossed from Game 3 for charging and knocking over Kelly Olynyk.
Coach Scott Brooks and Oubre’s teammates acknowledged that was over the line and hope the young swingman will learn from his actions. Oubre said the lesson he took from it was “don’t bee-line anybody anymore on the court.”
Oubre’s actions could lead to a suspension for Game 4 Sunday, but the Wizards aren’t backing down against a Boston team that’s up 2-1 and also seems to be willing to engage in physicality.
“This series is going to be feisty,” said Washington guard Brandon Jennings, who was ejected in the fourth quarter along with Boston’s Terry Rozier for two double technical fouls. “We’re still down one, still down in the series. We’ve just got to take each game one game at a time and come back for Game 4 Sunday, which is going to be probably crazy.”
Crazy is just how the Wizards like it. They handled Millsap and Dwight Howard inside to beat the Hawks in six games, leading Wizards center Marcin Gortat to say facing the Celtics big men was “not even close” to that tough of a challenge.
Perhaps Washington is the more physical team in this series, or at least that’s the perception being created.
“We’ve got to play hard,” Gortat said. “We’ve got to hit, we’re going to foul hard if we have to, but we aren’t going to start doing stuff that’s going to take us out of our game.”
Fundamentally, the Wizards’ game is defending well and turning defensive rebounds into quick transition points. Brooks promotes defense-first even for a group that averaged 109.6 points a game in the regular season, fourth in the NBA.
Celtics center Al Horford said the Wizards’ performance in Game 3 was an example of “the way that they junk the game up a little bit.” Even as Thomas complained about a discrepancy in fouls, coach Brad Stevens knows Boston has to combat Washington in more ways than just matching one hard foul for another.
“We have to focus on playing good basketball,” Stevens said on a conference call Friday. “Part of playing good basketball is being appropriately physical and being able to own your space and hold your ground and those types of things.”
The Wizards have no issue holding their ground or fighting for more, as they’ve shown nine games into the playoffs. The rest of the series may be officiated in a way that negates some of their physicality, but they’re comfortable if the pushing, shoving and extracurricular activities continue.
“It’s just been a lot of hard fouls that you’re used to seeing back in the old days’ playoffs,” Wall said. “As long as guys are not out there trying to hurt each other, it comes with the basketball of somebody getting fouled hard, trash-talking. That’s what goes on with it.”