It might be hard to remember given the way the Boston Celtics completely dominated the second half of Monday's tilt with the Washington Wizards, but the hosts actually held a small lead late in the first half.
In fact, there was a sequence in which John Wall, bottled up for much of the first 24 minutes, back-tipped the ball away from Isaiah Thomas as he drove, and it went straight into Jared Dudley's hands. Wall, as he so often does, broke out the other way in transition for what seemingly would be an easy dunk.
Instead, Thomas lunged at Dudley and, throwing his hands up to clog the passing lanes like some sort of undersized defensive lineman, the 5-foot-9 guard managed to swat down Dudley's pass, and it redirected to Avery Bradley near the paint. Bradley went up quickly with an easy layup that put Boston back out front.
The sequence essentially summed up the night for Wall who, after torching Boston for 36 points and 13 assists a little more than a week ago, was limited to eight points on 3-of-11 shooting with 10 assists during Boston's 116-91 triumph at the Verizon Center.
With NBA coaches facing a Tuesday deadline to submit their ballots for All-Star reserves, it was Thomas who turned in one more memorable audition by scoring a team-high 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting to go along with nine assists, four rebounds and a steal over 28 minutes.
Thomas might not need any additional motivation, but playing against Wall and the Wizards certainly seems to bring the best out of him.
"You always are excited when you're a guy like Isaiah who's got a chip on his shoulder to challenge himself against the best," Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters in Washington. "But I think Isaiah's pretty consistent regardless of who we're playing in how he approaches every night. ... He's got a nice swagger about him, but he also respects the game and respects everybody. But certainly you get excited to play against guys like John Wall."
Both Wall and Thomas are competing for one of four possible spots when East coaches choose two backcourt players and two wild cards among their seven reserve picks. In a competitive guard field that also includes Chicago's Jimmy Butler and Toronto's DeMar DeRozan, there's room for both Wall and Thomas. But if any coaches were on the fence, Thomas certainly put his best foot forward on Monday.
So did the Celtics. Boston has won three in a row and six of its past eight, and the team's success may further distinguish Thomas, particularly if East coaches want to reward Boston for sitting four games over .500 to this point. What's more, with Monday's win, the Celtics completed a four-game season sweep of the Wizards, having outscored Washington by a total of 464-384 in those meetings.
While most Boston players seemed confident recently that Thomas will land on the East's All-Star roster, the bigger positive from the past 48 hours has been the overall play of a Celtics team that has struggled with consistency. While the Celtics know better than to be content in a season that's been a roller-coaster ride, Boston has shown signs of restoring a defense-first mentality that disappeared a bit amid recent slippage.
The Celtics have found better offensive play, particularly while working with smaller lineups, but coach Brad Stevens has stressed a desire for his team to return to the ball-hawking, body-bashing defense that had served as its identity for much of the season. The Celtics rank second in the NBA in defensive rating, while allowing a mere 98.6 points per 100 possessions.
Over the past three games, the Celtics own a defensive rating of 89.5. That's best in the league during that span, and by almost two full points. What's more, Boston's offensive rating in those three games is a robust 108.1, giving Boston a net rating of plus-18.6 points per 100 possessions.
That all hammers home the notion that the Celtics have played some excellent two-way basketball over these past three games, but the quality play dates back even further. Even with a two-game stumble against the Raptors and Mavericks, the Celtics have put up some excellent numbers over their past eight games, and there's a sense the team might be on the cusp of finding the consistency that has eluded it for much of the season.
During Monday's win over well-rested Washington, the Celtics put six players in double figures and had a big enough lead to rest Thomas and three other starters for the entire fourth quarter. But it was the defensive tenacity that stood out.
Over the past three games, Celtics opponents have averaged 21.3 turnovers and are giving up the ball 20.2 times per 100 possessions (a noticeable jump from an average of 16.8 turnovers per 100 possessions overall this season). The Wizards committed 20 turnovers leading to 28 points and seemed to check out a bit as the Celtics ramped up the defensive intensity in the second half.
When the Celtics play like they did at both ends on Monday, there's a propensity to wonder how much higher they can climb. The Celtics can't get happy. Nothing about the 2015-16 season to this point suggests that they can avoid lulls in their play. But a 48-hour foray through snow-covered Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., was mighty encouraging. It's a reminder of what these Celtics are capable of when they play to their potential.