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Celtics, Wizards, Jayson Tatum, Russell Westbrook

3 reasons Celtics will beat Wizards in play-in game

Boston Celtics. Washington Wizards. Jayson Tatum. Russell Westbrook. Kemba Walker. Bradley Beal. Boston’s TD Garden. Tuesday night.

What’s not to like about these two teams dueling in the No. 7-No. 8 play-in game, where the winner makes the Eastern Conference playoffs and the loser has to regroup?

The Celtics have limped to the finish line, going 4-9 in the last 13 games after a strong 99-86 win against the Western Conference no. 2 seed Phoenix Suns. A May 2 wrist injury ended the special season of guard Jaylen Brown, all but punching Boston’s postseason hopes right in the gut.

And yet, Boston has a formidable chance to stump the visiting Wizards, behind three key reasons.

Tale of the tape Boston Celtics Washington Wizards
Record 36-36 (7th in the Eastern Conference) 34-38 (8th in the Eastern Conference)
PPG 112.6 (16th) 116.6 (3rd)
OPPG 111.2 (11th) 118.5 (30th)
Team FG% 46.6% 47.5%

Reason No. 1: Jayson Tatum

That’s it. That’s the reason. But let’s elaborate here.

The two-time All-Star and 6-foot-8, 210-pound forward has done it all for Boston this season. In 64 games, he has turned his fourth year in the league into a playground of sorts. He averaged 26.4/7.4/4.3 in nearly 36 minutes per game, and with some silly splits (.459/.386/.868) as one of the NBA’s most efficient players.

What doesn’t bode well for Washington is that he’s naturally better at home in the Garden, where he has averaged 27.7/7.7/4.7 on 47.9 percent shooting from the floor, 41.4 percent from the arc and 88.3 percent from the line…and with more minutes per game (36.6). Not only is he just better in Boston, but he’s better for a longer period of time–and that’s a deadly combination for a Wizards defense that finished dead-last in the NBA in defensive points per game (118.5) this  2020-21.

Boston won the regular-season series with Washington, 2-1, with its lone loss coming on a cold-shooting night from Tatum (Game No. 26; 3-for-14 shooting). But in the two victories? Tatum was spectacular, going for 31/8/3 on 12-for-22 shooting and 32/5/2 on 14-for-27 shooting to offset the Bradley Beal barrage. The Wizards simply don’t have anyone on their roster physically capable of limiting what Tatum brings offensively.

Reason No. 2: Even against the Celtics, Washington has trouble behind the arc

The Boston Celtics haven’t been particularly lauded for their 3-point defense this season, finishing 22nd overall by allowing teams to shoot 37.4 percent from deep.

And yet, the Wizards—though not particularly strong from the arc all year (35.1 percent, 22nd)—weren’t able to capitalize against this perceived weakness in the three regular-season matchups between the clubs. Washington shot 27-for-91 (29.7 percent) from downtown against the Celtics, and in the one game they did dial successfully from long distance (11-for-29, 37.9%), Boston moved to 7-3 in a 116-107 home win.

Washington didn’t take or make many 3-pointers this year, finishing 28th in makes and 29th in attempts. In a league where the 3-ball is king, the Celtics have quite the edge here. Boston finished 11th in makes, 10th in attempts and 10th in 3PT%.

In the last five regular-season games, they’ve been accurate from long range, going 84-for-199 (42.2 percent).

Reason No. 3: Bradley Beal is incredible, but he’s not 100%

There’s no question the Wizards, despite the league’s worst defense (118.5 ppg, 30th), have been fun to watch. Westbrook has played “Point God” in 2020-21, passing Hall-of-Famer Oscar Robertson’s once-untouchable record of games with a triple-double. Year two for former Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura has gone well (13.8/5.5, 47.8 percent shooting). Garrison Mathews, Raul Neto and Robin Lopez have been effective from the bench as well, while Davis Bertans and Alex Len have had some key moments.

However, it’s Bradley Beal who has kept up his torrid scoring all year, finishing just behind 33-year-old Stephen Curry with 31.3 points per outing.

In Sunday’s season finale, a come-from-behind 115-110 win against the Charlotte Hornets, Beal finished 8-for-27 with 25 points, six rebounds and four assists. After the game though, he admitted his left hamstring still isn’t where he wants it to be.

“There’s no setbacks, which is good,” Beal said, per ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk. “I didn’t injure it any worse than what it was. Obviously it still probably won’t be 100%. It’s just a matter of managing it as best I can.”

Even the fully healthy version of Beal still only led Washington to a 1-2 record against Boston this season. Sure, in the two games he played in Boston, he averaged 43.5 points and 5.0 rebounds on 55.2 percent shooting and 39.0 minutes per game–but they lost those two games anyway.

Beal injured his hamstring in a 133-132 overtime win against the Indiana Pacers, and he missed the two-game back-to-back with the Atlanta Hawks last week. Over his last 10 games, he has averaged 31.3 points per game, but at rougher shooting rates than his season averages (46.5/33.3/80.7). Like many NBA stars, the season has played a serious physical toll in the log-jam of competition, and Washington had to make a serious push to get back into playoff contention.

Does Beal have enough left in the tank to help propel this offense alongside Westbrook? Realistically speaking, maybe not. And that’s to Boston’s benefit.