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A small semblance of normalcy returned to Capital One Arena on Wednesday night. The Washington Wizards dance cam made its season debut. People other than the players on the court wore NBA jerseys. Four fans held up a banner welcoming Russell Westbrook to a team that he joined four months ago. Bradley Beal, who is averaging 31 points per game this season, received chants of “MVP!” as he stood on the free throw line. And loud boos rang through the arena during the fourth quarter, as fans eager for free chicken sandwiches heckled opposing players attempting free throws.
For the first time since March 10, 2020, the Wizards played in front of their home fans, on what the team dubbed “Fans Opening Night,” and beat the Golden State Warriors, 118-114, in a hectic, back-and-forth game for their sixth straight win. With the victory, the Wizards passed the Toronto Raptors as the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference and currently own the final spot in the play-in tournament.
“That was one of the wildest games I’ve coached where we had everything clicking: defensively, offensively, ball movement, taking care of the ball, extra shots, 50-50 balls,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said after the game. “And then 12 minutes later, they had everything. And then we didn’t have anything in that third quarter and then defensively in the fourth quarter we woke up and made them take a lot of tough shots.”
The Wizards led by as much as 19 points in the first half against the Warriors in front of a pandemic-limited capacity crowd of 2,133 fans that included notable names like high school basketball star Azzi Fudd and her future UConn teammate Paige Bueckers, hip-hop artist Pusha T, and Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera.
Two-time NBA MVP and the NBA’s leading scorer Stephen Curry scored only four points on 2-of-10 from the field in the first half, but the Warriors went on their own run, led by role players like former Wizards forward Kelly Oubre Jr. to cut Washington’s lead to 60-58 going into halftime. Oubre finished the game with a team-high 24 points. The Wizards also dealt with a scary moment in the first half when rookie Deni Avdija had to be taken off the court in a wheelchair after suffering what appeared to be a bad right ankle injury late in the second quarter.
ESPN reported that Avdija’s season is over due to a hairline fracture in his right ankle, but Brooks told reporters after the game that he did not know details of the injury.
“We don’t know if it’s over yet,” Brooks said of Avdija’s season. “Two things about Deni I love: He cares a lot, and he works extremely hard. And those are two characteristics that we want our program to be about. And he’s about those things. Has he had an up and down year? Absolutely. You look at all the great rookies, all the great players in the league, the MVPs is in the league, look at their rookie years, it’s no different.”
Even with an uncharacteristically off night for Curry, the Warriors continued to pad their lead and went into the fourth quarter up, 93-86. It wasn’t until 3:45 left in the game that the Wizards pulled within four points, 104-100, after Westbrook scored a field goal.
After the game, Brooks commented that neither Westbrook nor Beal “played particularly well,” but praised them for making big plays down the stretch. Brooks also commented that Westbrook would not receive the credit he deserves for his defense on Curry, who finished with only 18 points.
Westbrook agreed with his coach’s assessment of his defense.
“I mean, like I said, I feel like I’m a player that can do it all: defend, score, whatever it is that needs to be done,” he said. “My job changes every night. And I feel like I’m one of those players that if I need to defend at a high level, I can do that too. If I need to score to high level, I can do that. Pass, I can do that. Rebound, I can do that. You want me to coach? Shit, I can do that, too … Steph been on the hot streak, he’s been playing very well, and I took the challenge to start the game and make sure that he didn’t continue his streak on us tonight.”
The Wizards took their first lead in the fourth quarter after Dāvis Bertāns hit a 29-foot three-pointer to make it 110-108 with two minutes remaining. From there, Westbrook made a driving layup, followed by another from Beal, and Bertans. Washington closed the game on a 25-10 run.
“I take pride in clutch moments. I take pride in making the right plays down a stretch,” Westbrook said. “I take pride in the last five minutes of games, making big shots, making big plays. And that’s something that I’ve done in my career.”
Beal finished with 29 points, and Westbrook had another triple double with 14 points, 10 assists, and 20 rebounds. The Wizards also had key contributions from Bertāns (19 points), Daniel Gafford (19 points), and Raul Neto (18 points.)
They play the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City tomorrow.
“We’re really playing well together,” Beal said. “A lot of guys getting their legs back under them, minute restrictions are gone, guys acclimated to the playbook. So it’s coming full circle for us, and it’s kind of crazy, it’s a little later than what we want but it’s definitely a good time for us to be able to get on a roll right before the ‘offs.”