BOSTON – This time of year, there’s always an increased amount of tension between teams jockeying for playoff tension.
But what’s going on between the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards … this is different.
With these two, there’s a clear and undeniable disdain for one another that we’ve seen become part of the narrative between these two before, during and after games.
Washington players dressing in all black for “the Funeral game” in which they buried the Celtics, 123-108 on Jan. 24.
That came 13 days after Jae Crowder and John Wall get into it after the game, an incident in which Crowder pointed his finger in Wall’s face, touched his nose and Wall responded by swinging back at Crowder.
Both players were fined for their roles in the incident.
And as much as pride and ego play a role in all this, the playoff stakes for both teams are extremely high in what may wind up being the most important game of the season for both franchises.
Boston (44-26) has a 1.5 game lead over Washington (42-27) for the second-best record in the East. If the Celtics win, they will split the season series at two games apiece but just as important, take a 2.5 game lead over the Wizards with what would be 11 games remaining.
For the Wizards, a victory would give them the head-to-head series three games to one, and put them just 0.5 game behind Boston for the No. 2 spot in the East.
Looking at the way the East is shaking down, these two are battling for home court advantage in the likely event that they meet in the second round of the playoffs.
Al Horford is well aware of the importance of tonight's game.
But none of that stuff can be what the Celtics are focused tonight.
“It’s about us,” Horford told reporters following Sunday’s loss at Philadelphia. “I don’t think it has anything to do with standings or any of that stuff. It’s about us getting better. (Tonight) we have that opportunity.”
Avery Bradley also tried to downplay the significance of tonight’s game other than it being a chance to get back on track after losing 105-99 to the Sixers.
“It’s big. That’s a cool thing about the NBA,” Bradley told reporters in Philadelphia on Sunday. “We played (against Philly) and it was unfortunately a loss for us. But we’re playing a very good team (tonight). We can forget about this game. And worry about Washington. We know they’re going to come out and be ready to play. It’s our job to make sure we’re prepared mentally and physically.”
That’ll be a lot easier said than done.
The emotions are sure to run high when these two take to the floor tonight, which can be tricky balancing act.
Players always want to play with a high level of emotion, but there’s the potential for it to consume the Celtics and have a negative impact on their execution which will have to be at a high level due to the opponent who comes into tonight’s game with a great deal of confidence.
The way head coach Brad Stevens sees it, the Sixers loss is a reminder of what happens when they don’t play with the focus and attention to detail that they’ll need in order to win.
“If we don’t play well for long periods of time, we’re going to lose,” said Stevens who added that he felt the Sixers outplayed his team for three quarters of the game. “To give three quarters away, you’re probably going to get beat.”
Following the Philadelphia loss, Crowder talked about how he felt some of his teammates were looking ahead to the Wizards and not focusing as much as they should have on beating Philadelphia.
Well the Wizards game is here now, and Crowder isn’t one to mince his words when it comes to describing a game that could have a significant impact on the Celtics’ postseason starting point.
“It’s a big game, especially coming off this loss,” Crowder told reporters. “We have to bounce back. This is a bad loss for us. We have to bounce back. We look forward to bouncing back and getting a win.”
While that’s all good, this game has a little extra fight – Ok, let’s try a different word like "incentive" – because of the opponent, right?
“They’re a good team. They’ve been playing well. We’re right there, second and third seed in the East,” Crowder who added with a grin, “Both teams play hard; it is what it is.”
What “it is” is two teams that don’t like each other, and don’t do anything to hide that when they meet up.
Even though the Celtics haven’t talked much about it publicly, they have not forgotten the Jan. 24 meeting when the Wizards wore all-black and proclaimed that they were dressing for a funeral procession hours before putting the Celtics away in what was one of Washington’s best-played games this season.
Will the Wizards go with the funeral procession look again, only this time on the Celtics’ home floor (the Jan. 24 game was in D.C.)?
Crowder smiled before saying, “I don’t know what they’re gonna do.”