First of all, let's get one thing out of the way -- yes, the Wizards play tonight, and yes, the opponent is Boston again. After jumping out to a very quick lead in Saturday's matchup, the Celtics withstood a late surge by the Wizards to win the first game in the series, 89-86, largely on the strength of Paul Pierce's offense and Kevin Garnett's defense.
Boston should look largely the same as they did in the first game of their back-to-back with Washington. The same might not be true of Washington, though. While Randy Wittman doesn't seem inclined to change the starting lineup, it would make all the sense in the world for us to see more of Kevin Seraphin. Trevor Booker can't guard Garnett, Emeka Okafor can't score on him (or anyone right now) and the team was +17 during Seraphin's 29 minutes of action against Boston.
Who, When, and Where: The Wizards play the Celtics at 7:30 PM EST in Boston. The game will be televised on Comcast Sports Net.
Why should I care? A few reasons: 1) Boston is good, but they're not unbeatable, 2) Bradley Beal struggled to score against Courtney Lee, and how he handles their rematch could say a lot about his current mental state, and 3) love them or hate them, the Celtics are as gritty as they come, and how the Wizards deal with players like Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo will say a lot about the team's own toughness.
Are they good? Yes, very good. Despite their 1 - 2 record, Boston will be one of the East's top teams this season. That said, they're not as good as they're going to be. Defensive ace Avery Bradley is still recovering from shoulder surgeries and will be out for a few more months, and rookie big men Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo are still adjusting to the NBA game. As good as the Celtics are now, they'll be a whole lot better come April, especially if they can somehow find a way to stay healthy.
What are their strengths? Defense and ubuntu. Despite an aging core and undersized power forwards like Brandon Bass and Sullinger, Boston still has a nasty defense. Even after 17 years of professional basketball, Garnett is as good a defensive player as you'll find, capable of alter shots with his length, bodying up in the post and switching out onto perimeter players. Part of what makes the team's defense so fearsome is how strongly each player has bought into the team concept. With one exception, everyone on the roster seems to be committed to at least attempting to play good team defense.
What are their weaknesses? The reserves, especially in the frontcourt. I touched on it a bit before the last game, but Boston's reserve bigs are very poor defenders, at least at this point. Sullinger is undersized, possesses below-average quickness and has a poor level of defensive awareness, at least in comparison to a veteran. To make matters worse, the team doesn't have anyone other than Garnett who can protect the rim. Darko Milicic was supposed to be that guy, but, despite his pre-season claims to the contrary, he just doesn't seem to care when he's on the floor. Washington could exploit this by having Jan Vesely and Seraphin run hard to the rim for layups and garbage buckets, something Milwaukee did with a great deal of success in their victory over Boston on November 2.
What might people not know about them? Boston's offense should actually be decent this year, even without Ray Allen (remember, as good as Allen was last year, he's nowhere near the shot-creator he was three years ago, much less in his prime). The additions of Jason Terry, Lee and Sullinger, as well as the return of Jeff Green, should finally give Boston some legitimate secondary offensive options who don't need to rely solely on Rondo to get high-percentage looks. The team has excellent ball movement and good spacing, with Rondo the only rotation player who can't shoot.
They're also surprisingly young. While Garnett, Pierce and Terry are in their mid to late 30's, the team has seen something of a youth injection, especially in their second unit. Green, Sullinger, Lee, Melo and Rondo are all under 27. Perhaps just as significantly, with the exception of Sullinger, all of them can get up and down the court quickly. Boston just might have an up-tempo offense at times, something that would have seemed inconceivable at this time last year.
Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo ... Where have I heard those names before? Sullinger and Melo were both first-round draft choices this year, with Sullinger in particular drawing a lot of buzz. Melo is very raw and may wind up being solely a shot-blocking specialist. Sullinger has a lot of potential, too, and could be a very good banger and scorer. I could see him turning into a post-L.A. Elton Brand type who can pick and pop, score in the paint a bit and rebound well for his position.
So can the Wizards win? They're definite underdogs, but don't count them out just yet. The Celtics played a lot harder against the Wizards than they did in their loss to the similarly-talented Bucks, and there's no guarantee that they'll be able to maintain that level of energy now that they have their first win of the season under their belts. That said, the Wizards would be unlikely to win even if the entire team was healthy; with John Wall and Nene in street clothes, the odds are very much in the Celtics' favor.