Making the playoffs was always the goal for the Washington Wizards this season, even though that appeared doubtful much of the year. The team bottomed out on April 5, when, at 17-32, the Wizards had a 0.6 percent chance of making it to the playoffs. It was around then, when the team seemed to be at their lowest, that Russell Westbrook gave his team an impassioned speech, Wizards coach Scott Brooks recently told reporters. Westbrook’s edict was clear.
“He gave passionate, very direct talk to the group: ‘I am not going through this season and not making the playoffs,'” Brooks recalled.
Weeks later, after defeating the Indiana Pacers, 142-115, in their second game of the play-in tournament, Westbrook and the Wizards delivered on that promise and officially clinched their berth as the eighth seed in the 2021 Eastern Conference playoffs. The road back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2017-18 season featured highs and lows, the deepest valley being the buzzer beater loss to the Toronto Raptors on April 5.
“This season, at the time, we were struggling and everybody was doubting us on the outside and we had to knuckle up and make the playoffs. Simple as that,” Westbrook said after the win over the Pacers. “I made it clear to the guys that we would make it.”
There were reasons to doubt. With every step forward the team made, something happened to derail the progress. The Wizards lost rookie forward Deni Avdija for the season on April 22 with a hairline fracture in his leg, leaving the Wizards with a void to fill in their wing rotation. The arrival of Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline was a catalyst for turning the season around as he showed flashes of a rim-running big man who plays above the rim, but Gafford was also hampered by an ankle injury in late March that caused him to miss time and restrict the amount of minutes he played. The setbacks were critical for a team that left itself little margin for error in terms of winning games to close out the season after a slow start.
The Wizards have seemingly been playing “must-win” games for weeks and there was cause for concern that the team may have run out of energy to make a final push after a disappointing showing against the Boston Celtics on the first night of the play-in tournament. Luckily for the Wizards, their big win against the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday, May 16, put them in a favorable position within the NBA’s new play-in system and allowed them to host a home game to advance to the playoffs.
On Thursday night, fans again filled Capital One Arena to its 25 percent capacity limit and those in attendance got to witness the potential of this year’s Wizards. Bradley Beal, who finished as the league’s second highest scorer in back-to-back seasons, scored a game-high 25 points, shooting 9 of 17 from the field, and Westbrook, the triple-double king, hyped up the crowd with 18 points, 15 assists, and eight rebounds. The pair bounced back from poor performances in the loss to the Celtics and the Wizards’ young cast of players also took the opportunity to put on a show.
Rui Hachimura finished the game with 18 points on eight shots and continues to show why he has gained the trust of the Wizards’ star backcourt.
“He’s one hell of a player. He’s gonna be great in this league for a long time,” Westbrook said. “My job is to find ways to just keep trying to bring the best out of him.”
Key veterans like Robin Lopez and Ish Smith have been steadying forces that allow the Wizards’ second unit to flourish. Smith has been as consistent as he has ever been over the course of his near decade in the league and Lopez has transformed his game with the resurgence of the hook shot. Add in timely shooting from Raul Neto and Dāvis Bertāns and the Wizards have the makings of a complete roster that is ready to compete with the better teams in the league.
As a reward for making the playoffs, the Wizards will get an opportunity to challenge Philadelphia 76ers, the best team in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers have been a model of defensive consistency for the entirety of the season and boast three possible All-Defensive team candidates in Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, and Joel Embiid.
In order for the Wizards to realistically stay competitive in a seven-game series against the top seeded Sixers, they will have to drive Sixers guards Danny Green and Seth Curry off of the three-point line and not allow Embiid, an MVP candidate, to dominate in the paint. The Wizards lost all three games against Philadelphia during the regular season.
“It’s the first to four. We’re definitely excited about it,” Beal said. “They’re a good team, obviously, No. 1 in the East. We got our hands full, and we realize that. But we’ve been playing really good as of late. So we got a lotta noise to make ourselves, too.”
Photo by Mogami Kariya on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.