BOSTON — Prior to every game, the two high-definition TVs in the home locker room at TD Garden typically show video of the Celtics’ previous matchup with that night’s opponent. Some players, like Jeff Green and Brandon Bass, watch raptly, while others hardly pay attention. But the TVs almost always show the Celtics and their opponent, even if the last meeting was months ago.
Not on Sunday, though. As the Celtics prepped for the Wizards in a rare early-evening game, they watched tape of Washington’s victory over the Pacers from the previous night. In this case, Celtics coach Doc Rivers did not see much use in reliving any of his team’s earlier matchups, when the Wizards were without their superb young point guard, John Wall.
“When you watch them play compared to before, it’s slow motion in our three games against them earlier in the year and how they play now,” Rivers said. “I burned that tape. I didn’t show one clip from those games, because it’s not the same team. Nene wasn’t there a couple, either, so they’re just a different team.”
Before the Celtics’ 107-96 victory over the Wizards on Sunday, it was clear that Washington is a much better team than its 29-47 record suggested. The Wizards entered Sunday 24-19 with Wall in the lineup, having posted the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference since Wall returned in mid-January.
As Rivers mentioned, Nene’s presence has played a role in the improvement as well, but no single player has had as noticeable an impact as Wall. There might be a very different feeling in Washington if Wall had been healthy all season and the Wizards were battling for home-court advantage in the playoffs, not fighting to avoid their fourth 50-loss season in five years. (The lone exception is last season, when they lost 46 games in the lockout-shortened 66-game campaign.)
“John’s just a unique player,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “His pace that he creates in a game, you can’t duplicate. When he came back and he finally got back into game shape, where he could perform at the level he’s capable of, that just really helped us from an offensive standpoint.”
Skimming the stat book does not do justice not only to how Wall has improved, but also to how he has improved the Wizards. His 7.6 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game would be career-lows, and ideally a scoring guard would put up more than 20 points nightly, not 18.0 points per game, as Wall is doing.
Yet Wall has never been more efficient in his three years as a pro, despite playing limited minutes as he essentially plays himself back into shape after an early-season knee injury. He is shooting a career-best 45 percent from the field and 82 percent from the free throw line, and if he were playing his usual 36 minutes per game, he would be posting All-NBA-caliber numbers of 20.2 points and 8.5 assists.
Wall is not merely scoring and making plays for his teammates. In a sign of entering the league’s elite, he is getting to the foul line at a ridiculous rate. He posted double-digit free throw attempts in six of seven games before the Celtics shut him down in that area Sunday. Since March 25, he was averaging 12.9 free throws per game. That sort of free throw volume is not just a sign of respect from the officials, but it also shows that Wall is learning to generate the most efficient scoring chance in the game: a flat-footed, uncontested 15-footer with the clock stopped.
“That’s crazy,” Rivers said.
The Wizards, meanwhile, have emerged as one of the best defensive teams in the league. They have risen to the top seven in defensive efficiency rating at a shade over 100 points allowed per 100 possessions and give up the third-lowest field goal percentage in the NBA. Much of that is due to Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, two defensive standouts at their positions, but Washington’s improved defense combined with Wall’s speed have led to more transition opportunities.
The Wizards were long ago eliminated from this season’s playoff picture, and most observers probably stopped caring when they entered the All-Star break with just 15 wins. For those who are still paying attention, however, concerns that Wall’s talents might be stagnating are gone. Teams at the bottom of the East playoff standings might want to have their TVs tuned to Washington games next season. Wall and the Wizards could be coming to steal their spots.