BOSTON -- There was no all-black funeral attire this time when the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards met, but there was a grim reaper. In a black-hooded robe with a patient female companion alongside, the reaper sat about 20 rows behind one of the baskets at TD Garden, a cardboard-and-duct-tape scythe in tow. Throughout much of the fourth quarter, the reaper walked down to floor level with the goal of distracting Wizards free throw shooters.
The cardboard gravestone he carried indicated in scribbled marker that the reaper had collected the egos of John Wall and Bradley Beal and suggested the Celtics and Wizards' rivalry was the "most manufactured in sport."
Sorry, grim. Try telling that to Isaiah Thomas, who despite being less than 100 percent due to a right knee bone bruise that forced him to sit out Boston's previous two games still suited up for Monday's game, all while acknowledging the magnitude of a tilt in which both combatants were vying for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
And after a trash-talk-filled night in which Thomas reveled each time the Garden crowd buzzed with playoff-level intensity, Thomas gushed about the atmosphere during Boston's 110-102 triumph.
"It was pretty cool. I like it. I like those type of games," said Thomas, who scored a team-high 25 points on an unusually inefficient 7-of-19 shooting over 34 minutes, 42 seconds. "We knew it was going to be like that. Those guys don't like us, we don't like them. That's what it is."
At one point during Boston's early third-quarter run that stretched the team's lead as high as 20, Thomas took a detour on his way back to the Boston bench for a timeout. Standing in front of the scorer's table near the midcourt stripe, he implored the Garden crowd to get loud.
Teammate Al Horford, who so rarely shows emotion that it's almost jarring when he exults beyond a clap of the hands on a missed midrange jumper, repeatedly motioned for the crowd to get louder, with the Garden still buzzing heading into the next stoppage.
Monday's game didn't have nearly as much drama as other recent meetings between these two teams. The only notable dustup came early in the second quarter, when reserve guard Terry Rozier and Brandon Jennings got into a tiff that culminated with Rozier delivering a forearm shove when Jennings stopped quick near midcourt. Jennings went tumbling to the floor, while Kelly Oubre Jr. rushed over to protest and Horford responded by wagging a finger in his direction. The Garden loved the emotions but not the lengthy video review that resulted merely in double technical fouls.
And while the Celtics ought to have run away with Monday's game, the Wizards made things interesting with a late-game rally that trimmed Boston's lead as low as six. That's when Marcus Smart, the spunky guard at the center of many of this rivalry's many flare-ups, straight up bulldozed Bojan Bogdanovic while muscling his way to a floater in the lane. At the other end of the floor, Bogdanovic got a step on Smart while driving at the hoop, but Smart grabbed onto the ball as Bogdanovic started up at the rim and simply ripped it away from him.
With the victory, the Celtics moved 2½ games up on the Wizards with 11 games remaining on Boston's home-heavy schedule. The win might have effectively ensured Boston finishes in that position -- and it seems far more likely that its forgiving schedule is more likely to allow Boston to make a charge at the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers than for Boston to get pushed hard for the No. 2 spot at the finish line.
The more interesting race could be for the No. 3 seed, in which the Wizards own a one-game edge over the Toronto Raptors, with a daunting trip out West looming for Washington. If the Wizards manage to hang onto the No. 3 seed, there's a very good chance that the Celtics and Wizards could cross paths again when the conference semifinals open on May 1.
"Both teams, you could say we don't like each other a little bit," admitted Jae Crowder, whose nose bop of Wall left the teams barking at each other in the bowels of TD Garden, and both Crowder and Wall were fined in the aftermath.
"There's probably a little bitterness in there," Crowder added, "but it's a good old-fashioned battle."
And what of a potential playoff rematch?
"It'd be a great one," Crowder said. "I'm sure it'd be a great playoff battle between these two teams, but who knows what could happen? If it comes down to it, it'd be a good one."
Before Monday's game, Thomas was asked how important it was for Boston to secure the No. 2 seed.
"S---, I want it as bad as you can get it," Thomas said. "Hopefully, we just keep at least the second seed, but it would be nice to sneak in and get the first seed, as well. We just have to control our own destiny and control what we can."
If that last line sounds familiar, it's what Boston coach Brad Stevens has implored his players to focus on throughout the season. And the Celtics very much control their own destiny now. Monday's win was the start of a six-game homestand for a team that plays just three more road games during the regular season.
As his players start daily examinations of the standings and ponder potential postseason matchups, Stevens has beseeched his team to concentrate on building the chemistry and cohesion that injuries have prevented Boston from gathering for much of the season. The Celtics have played just 29 games with their preferred starting five of Thomas, Avery Bradley, Crowder, Horford and Amir Johnson. With Monday's win, they improved to 22-7 with that group.
And it was notable when Thomas mentioned how Horford, a quiet leader who tends to guide by his actions, spoke up in the locker room after Monday's win and echoed Stevens sentiment about not waiting until the playoffs to crank things up.
Horford doesn't like to broadcast his messages to the team but acknowledged the postgame discussion.
"I think it's just we're winding down with the season. I just think it's important that we all understand how we need to play and just putting some perspective on everything," said Horford, a veteran of nine playoff appearances with the Atlanta Hawks before joining Boston this past summer.
Horford was then asked if there's another level these Celtics can reach.
"I think that's the big question," Horford said. "We do it at times. It's just something that we've been talking about -- just be more consistent. Tonight, we did it for a lot of the time. We had some slippage, but we're figuring it out."
Even while figuring it out, the Celtics have put themselves in prime position. After leaving its seeding fate to a tiebreaker last season, Boston now controls its playoff destiny. After beating the Wizards twice at TD Garden, while losing twice on the road, there's an obvious value to ensuring home-court advantage should their paths cross again.
And sorry, reaper, that would absolutely be a good thing for the league. The Celtics and Wizards would represent a highly entertaining matchup with an old-school feel because of the bad blood.
By the end of Monday's game, surely even the reaper was hoping for a return engagement in May.