BOSTON (WASHINGTON POST) - This National Basketball Association season, when the Washington Wizards grew in grit and confidence, players often stated the goal of meeting the defending champions Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Wizards so badly wanted this May match-up. Their yearning even prompted star point guard John Wall to proclaim how the entirety of the 2016-17 season would be a "waste" if Washington failed to book the trip.
Late on Monday night, as the Boston Celtics' 115-105 win appeared imminent, chants of "We Want Cleveland!" filled TD Garden. The sing-song cadence had to sound like taunts to the Wizards' starters, most of whom were seated on the bench while the reserves who could not lessen their load unceremoniously closed Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, as well as the season.
When the 2016-17 Wizards season gets annotated in a bright red pen, the chapters on defence and team depth will receive the harshest marks. Unsurprisingly, in the team's biggest game of the season, these flaws would reveal themselves again.
In the second half, the Wizards succumbed to a rain of threes from unlikely Game 7 heroes and gave up 62 points.
"It's been a trend for us," guard Bradley Beal said about the team's defensive lapses.
"Just staying in the moment, staying locked into it defensively. Not worried about our offence... Every time we look at these box scores, it's 100-plus points, you know. That's never the problem. It's 115 to 120 or however many we're giving up."
While balance and depth defined Boston, who got 26 unlikely points from reserve forward Kelly Olynyk, the Wizards could only rely on four starters. Beal had his best game of the series, with 38 points (12 of 22 from the field with five three-pointers), while Otto Porter Jr bounced back from a scoreless Game 6 to contribute 20 points and 10 rebounds. Markieff Morris also shot efficiently and finished with 18 points and nine rebounds.
For Boston, Isaiah Thomas did not need to be special, although he finished with 29 points, because reserves filled in the space. Olynyk did not wear all black to the game, as many of his team-mates did for Game 6, but he served as the unlikely grim reaper.
TD Garden seemed to shake from 18,624 fans releasing nervous energy that had been pent up earlier in the game. Although Beal tried to shoot hope back into his team - scoring 12 points in the fourth quarter - Boston spent the rest of the game delivering the final blow in this rivalry.
Now Boston get the champs. And Washington return home, with one of the best seasons in franchise history in the books but a sting that will last through the summer.
"It's going to be a while for me. I hate losing," Beal said. "Especially (because) we feel like we're the better team."