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As the final buzzer sounded inside Capital One Arena on Sunday afternoon, fans treated the home team to a standing ovation. The energy in the building was palpable as the Washington Wizards beat the Charlotte Hornets, 110-105, to favorably position themselves heading into the NBA’s new play-in tournament. With the win, the Wizards secured the eighth seed in the tournament and will earn an official playoff berth if they win either of their next two games.
Sunday’s chaotic contest served as a microcosm of this season’s Wizards team.
“This game kind of mimicked our season. A lot of crazy things happened to us. We were getting punched left and right and we just somehow kept battling,” head coach Scott Brooks said after victory.
A level of uncertainty hung over the team before the game even began. All-star guard Bradley Beal had missed the previous three games with a strained hamstring and Brooks and the coaching staff did not know if Beal would be available until 30 minutes before tipoff. With the Wizards down double digits early, Beal showed clear signs of laboring as he attempted to knock off the rust from missing a week of game action. He was only able to hit two of his first 11 shots by halftime before finishing with a game-high 25 points.
But Russell Westbrook’s confidence in Beal never wavered and the NBA’s newly minted triple-double king praised his backcourt mate’s toughness. “You appreciate guys like him,” Westbrook said. “You don’t take his talent, his mental, anything for granted because he wants to win and wants to win bad … We fought through so much to get here now and nobody believed that we’d be here. It’s only up from here.”
The win over the Hornets capped a regular season in which the Wizards (34-38) started off 0-5 and fell to 17-32 on April 5 before climbing up the standings. Washington also had six games postponed and missed nearly two weeks of play due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the organization, while also losing two key players, center Thomas Bryant and rookie forward Deni Avdija, to season-ending injuries. The direction of the franchise appeared off target, and the analytical basketball school of thought suggested that the Wizards may have been better off developing their younger players to better position themselves to take a swing at one of the highly touted prospects projected to go early in the upcoming draft.
That line of thinking was never a realistic option as Wizards majority owner Ted Leonsis has made it consistently clear that the team “will never, ever tank,” dating back to 2018. Leonsis backed up his past words even more last week in a Zoom press conference.
“We want to win out; we want to win tonight and we want to win on Sunday,” he said. “We’ll then get into the play-in and then we’ll see what happens going into our season. But our focus is to try to continue this upswing. All of the focus is on just getting into that play-in.”
Just making it to the play-in tournament was not the ultimate goal for the Wizards. The team entered the season with playoff expectations after decades of mediocrity. There have been enough hiccups along the way that general manager Tommy Sheppard had to trade the team’s beloved franchise player, John Wall, to make what he considered an upgrade: bringing in Westbrook. That gamble has paid off so far.
“I’m always confident in who we have and the things they’re capable of doing,” Westbrook said. “I knew all along that once we got it together and clicking and getting healthy we’d be a difficult team to beat. I still believe that.”
After Sunday’s win, Westbrook credited the person many Wizards fans see as holding back the team. “You gotta give credit to our coach, number one,” said the former MVP. “Behind the scenes, Scottie is one hell of a coach. All of the outside noise, it really doesn’t matter because we know how important he is and I know how important he is to myself and to the team.”
Brooks is entering the final year of his contract as coach of the Wizards and has every incentive to put his players in the best possible position to succeed and win. Westbrook and Brooks’ relationship dates back to their days with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where Brooks got his first head coaching job and Westbrook started as a rookie. The next step in the evaluation process for Brooks will be how he is able to mobilize his team over the course of the play-in tournament and possible playoff berth.
Washington takes on the Boston Celtics tomorrow at 9 p.m. with an opportunity to lock themselves into the seventh seed in the playoffs. The Wizards have chosen to move forward incrementally as a franchise, even if their short-term goals don’t always align with the most logical long-term vision. The stakes only get higher from here, but as this season has shown, the Wizards shouldn’t be counted out.