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Bradley Beal had never been in this position before. In seven previous playoff series Beal had played in, none included an 0-3 start. But in their first round matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA playoffs this season, the top-seeded Sixers thoroughly outplayed the Wizards to win their first three games. Being down 0-3 meant that the Wizards had to play with an extra sense of urgency in Monday night’s Game 4 in order to keep their season alive.
They did. Daniel Gafford and Rui Hachimura provided highlight reel dunks that electrified the capacity crowd of 10,665 mostly Wizards fans at Capital One Arena. Beal poured in a game-high 27 points. Russell Westbrook posted his 12th career playoff triple-double. And Robin Lopez hook-shot his way to 16 points as the Wizards beat the Sixers, 122-114, to extend the series. Game 5 will be in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
“We played with more spunk. We played with a little more attitude and some excitement,” Beal said. “It just felt like we enjoyed being out there on the floor. We enjoyed playing defense. We enjoyed getting on a run in transition. These are what make us really good, and this is what gave us success at the end of the year. So we just got back to playing Wizards basketball the way we know how.”
The team competed with drastically different energy than in Game 3, which saw the Wizards get blown out, 132-103. Even when the Wizards got down 16-5 early in the first quarter on Monday, players like Dāvis Bertāns and Raul Neto stepped up and the Wizards only trailed 31-28 at the end of the first quarter after Sixers star and MVP candidate Joel Embiid left the game with a right knee injury. The Wizards cut that lead to 61-60 by halftime. Bertāns finished with 15 points on 4 of 7 shooting, including 3 of 6 from the three-point range, but exited the game in the third quarter with a right calf strain. ESPN reported on Tuesday that Bertāns has a grade two calf strain and will need four to six weeks to recovery.
“We understand that [Embiid] was out and we’re uncertain of how it is moving forward, but we took advantage of what was on the floor and we executed,” Beal said.
In the second half, Hachimura and Gafford, who started his first playoff game, made the difference. This season marks the first time Hachimura has competed in the playoffs, and coaches and teammates have long implored the second-year forward to play more aggressively. Before Game 4, veteran guard Ish Smith gave Hachimura some advice. “He told me, ‘We got to nothing to lose. We got to just ball out,'” Hachimura said. “He said, ‘Just be aggressive tonight.’ I was just trying to be aggressive on both ends, defensively, offensively. And as a team, I think we played together tonight, and that’s why we got a win.”
Hachimura finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds and even earned his first technical foul when he posterized and taunted Tobias Harris to give the Wizards a 77-72 lead in the third quarter. “I thought I would never get tech in my career,” Hachimura said with a chuckle. “The fans were back, we were 0-3, we had nothing to lose, literally … As a team we are feeling good. I was just in the moment. I was just emotional, and that’s why I did it.”
The Wizards led 92-80 heading into the fourth quarter, but another incident involving a fan during the NBA playoffs made headlines. With three minutes remaining in the third quarter, a fan sprinted onto the court just as the Wizards were about to go on a fast break and jumped and touched the backboard before being tackled by security. Monumental Sports & Entertainment released a statement saying the fan would be banned. It was the fifth fan-related incident during the NBA playoffs in under a week. After the game, Wizards head coach Scott Brooks delivered a five-minute response condemning those fans and called for them to face legal action.
“It’s unfortunate that one fan here and there, they ruin it for everyone,” he said. “There’s great fans in Boston, in New York, in Philly, in D.C., in Utah, but there’s some that needs to just know, you know what, stay home. Your thinking is barbaric. Stay home. We don’t need you. We don’t need your dollars. Just stay home.”
The fan didn’t slow down the Wizards, and Gafford’s dunks in the fourth quarter ignited the crowd. His turnaround two-handed slam with 2:13 left put the Wizards up, 112-110, and Hachimura hit the essentially game-sealing three pointer with 45.8 seconds left in the game that gave the Wizards a 118-112 lead.
“When he plays well, we play well,” Westbrook said of Hachimura.