Wizards-Celtics series is a throwback to NBA’s steel cage era
‘We don’t like them and they don’t like us’
After the carnage was over late Thursday night — after 52 personal fouls, eight technicals, three ejections, one flagrant, several elbows to the esophagus and some violent Kelly-on-Kelly crime — a member of the Boston Celtics had a declaration for the Wizards:
“We will beat their a– in Game 4,” Gerald Green told Slam Online, long recognized as the asphalt’s hip-hop scripture.
Green has been around the NBA since 2005, a prehistoric time when hooligans were hooligans and 6-foot-10 players referred to as “Stretch 4s” were deemed too soft to play inside. This was the pre-Stephen Curry era, when teams actually hit the boards rather than caressing them.
But there we were in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, in the middle of the league’s most ornery playoff series.
“We don’t like them and they don’t like us,” Boston point guard Isaiah Thomas said flatly after the Wizards disemboweled the Celtics 116-89 and won their first game of the best-of-seven series. “It is what it is. The bad blood from the regular season has carried over into the playoffs.”
Thomas spoke with a temporary bridge to conceal the tooth knocked out in Game 1 in Boston, a bridge he had to have adjusted before the third quarter last night. He spoke after Kelly Olynyk, his strapping, carefree teammate, set two nasty picks on the Wizards’ Kelly Oubre Jr., a normally baby-faced, polite youngster who went cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs after the second pick.
Seeing red, Oubre popped up from the floor and Brahma-charged Olynyk, pushing him to the floor and doing everything but throwing a punch.
This sort of thing has largely been unseen in the NBA since Auburn Hills, Michigan, circa 2004 — the Malice at the Palace, an infamous brawl between the Pacers and Pistons and players vs. fans. And it involved two usually docile souls. As Thomas said of Olynyk, “No offense against Kelly, but he’s not that type of guy.” Well, OK. Kevin Love and Cleveland might disagree.
Still, it reminded me of the time bodies were pulled from a pile of brawling NBA players in Miami 20 years ago this May. At the bottom were P.J. Brown, the congenial Miami Heat forward and winner of the league’s citizenship award that year, and Charlie Ward, the library-quiet Knicks point guard who brought two things to every game: himself and his Bible.
The NBA playoffs used to transform the nicest souls from heavenly to hellish in a heartbeat. And although Game 3 Thursday night was not exactly Knicks-Heat circa the late ’90s, or the Bad Boys hip-checking Michael Jordan or Larry Bird into a stanchion, it’s the closest thing anyone can remember in these kinder, gentler times.
“I felt like it wasn’t that physical,” Markieff Morris of the Wizards said afterward. “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.”
When I communicated the Wizards’ tough-guy sentiments to some of the Celtics late Thursday, I got a couple of death stares — and pleas for the next officiating crew to lower the testosterone level of the series. Or else.
“Everybody’s got to be allowed to play physical,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said through a mumble as he sat at his cubicle. “You can’t just let one team play physical.
“At some point, if things don’t clean this up, we’re going to have to take it upon ourselves to clean it up.”
We’re going to have to take it upon ourselves to clean it up.
Oh, it’s on. It is so on.
“I thought it was good, competitive playoff basketball that went over the line a couple times,” Jeff Van Gundy said this afternoon. “Two teams that respect each other but also understand how hard it is to advance. It was entertaining.”
Van Gundy is, of course, a respected ESPN NBA analyst. But before then, he coached the Knicks in several Steel Cage Death Matches against Pat Riley’s Heat, a rivalry that produced several of the ugliest offensive eyesores in the game’s modern history — and also one of the greatest rivalries the league has known.
Maybe that’s why Wizards-Celtics feels so compelling amid the chaos.
Yes, it features Boston’s Thomas, the most scintillating little man to carry a team since Allen Iverson in 2001. His dynamic play qualifies as even more amazing given the impossibly heavy heart he carries having lost his sister in a car accident three weeks ago. And it features the coming-out party of Washington’s John Wall, whom former player Caron Butler simply calls “the second-best player in the Eastern Conference” behind LeBron James.
But in a sharp rebuke to a generation of players who first declared themselves open from 30 feet and beyond on their mothers’ sonograms, this series is as much about brute force as beautifully patterned offense.
Boston’s Smart and Jae Crowder have the physique and aggressiveness of two bruisers who could have been plucked in the first round — of the NFL draft.
Morris has taken it to another level, creating T-shirts just for the postseason that read “Death Row D.C.” He has likened Wall to Tupac Shakur, Bradley Beal to Dr. Dre and himself to Snoop Dogg. Rounding out the rap label is “Suge Knight,” a team security guard named David Best who played in college and occasionally wears a shaved head and beard. (There is no truth to the rumor that Best held Olynyk over his hotel room balcony by his ankles last night.)
With so many friendships among opposing players in the league today, Wizards-Celtics is almost refreshing.
Wall and Thomas have great respect for each other. But aside from those two, the chances of finding the Celtics and Wizards hanging at the Rocket Bar or Penn Social after the game Sunday night is very slim.
So, in honor of Death Row D.C. vs. the Bad Boy roster from Beantown, we’ve reconstructed the chorus to Biggie’s “What’s Beef” just in time for Game 4:
What’s beef? Beef is when you need 2 more wins to Make Kief Morris sleep
Beef is when Kelly Olynyk ain’t safe up in the streets
Beef is when IT see you
Shake you, embarrass and take you, one more time
What’s beef? Beef is when you make Jae Crowder weep
Beef is when you roll no less than J Wall and 5 Deep
Beef is when I see you
Certified gone fishin’ by da TNT crew
Check it. One time. Or something like that.