2021 State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament
Wizards flex their power of perseverance and clinch No. 8 seed in East
A determined Russell Westbrook propels Washington past Indiana and into a first-round matchup against the 76ers.
Arms raised in jubilation with Bradley Beal still hanging on the rim off a backdoor jam, Russell Westbrook just knew Washington would flex the power of perseverance in the inaugural State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament.
“Russell has an edge to him,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said, “and I think the world should appreciate that.”
The fan base certainly does after Westbrook and Beal combined for 43 points Thursday in a lopsided 142-115 win over the Indiana Pacers that advances Washington to the postseason, where it faces top-seeded Philadelphia on Sunday in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Westbrook’s raised arms in the third quarter Thursday seemingly symbolized triumph over unspeakable adversity.
As we all know, Washington started off the season 0-5 and later 3-12, before a vicious COVID-19 outbreak affected more than half the roster, leading to the NBA shutting down the Wizards for two weeks. Washington also lost two starters for the season due to injuries in first-round pick Deni Avdija and center Thomas Bryant.
By the time April rolled around, Washington found itself staring up from near the bottom of the NBA standings with a record of 17-32.
In the midst of all the losing and adversity, Westbrook gathered the squad after a loss for an impassioned speech. Brooks can’t recall the date or game Westbrook delivered the talk. He only remembers the way it moved him and the rest of the Wizards, which ended up playing 38 games over the final 67 days of the season to move into eighth place and a berth in the Play-In Tournament.
According to Brooks, Westbrook told the team: “I’m not gonna let this happen and not make the playoffs. We’re gonna step up and fight for one another.”
Brooks remembers being floored by a rant he said, “went on and on and on.”
“I don’t talk just for my health,” Westbrook explained Thursday after scoring 18 points to go with 15 assists and eight rebounds. “At the time, we were struggling, and everybody was doubting us. We had to figure out a way to knuckle up and make the playoffs; simple as that. I didn’t care what happened in the previous games. Moving forward, we had to figure ourselves out, look at ourselves in the mirror starting with myself. I made it clear to the guys that we will make it.”
For Brooks, the talk served as notice for the astonishing run Washington would soon make.
“It was almost like, you guys better be ready for what’s about to take place,” Brooks said. “And it turned. It turned around. I don’t know if it was that moment, but everybody jumped on. We didn’t like start winning right away. But there was another awareness to what are we about as a team? What are we gonna remember this year? Are we gonna remember giving in to all the craziness that took place? Or are we gonna remember it for all the work that we put [ourselves] through to fight through all the craziness that took place?”
Why Not? https://t.co/lvS5f6y5u4
— x – Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) May 21, 2021
Washington rolled to wins in 17 of its final 23 regular-season games to seize the eighth seed, before suffering a humbling setback Tuesday in a 118-100 loss to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the Play-In Tournament. Westbrook and Beal combined to shoot 16-for-43 to go with seven turnovers. Rui Hachimura encountered early foul trouble that limited his impact. Reserve veteran sharpshooter Davis Bertans finished 0-for-7 from deep.
So, the Wizards walked into Capital One Arena on Thursday “with an edge,” Brooks said, as they prepped to perform at home against the Pacers with increased crowd capacity.
“I was just so pissed just at my performance [against the Celtics],” Westbrook said.
The Wizards wasted little time taking out that frustration on Indiana, which defeated the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday in the No. 9 vs. No. 10 game.
Washington had already swept the Pacers during the regular-season series, ringing up an average of 139.7 points. In this one, the Wizards simply resumed what had apparently become tradition this season.
Indiana did manage to keep pace early on, as Kelan Martin drilled a 27-foot stepback to knot up the score at 34 with 10:22 left in the second quarter. By the 8:41 mark, though, Robin Lopez converted an Ish Smith steal with a hook shot to put Washington up 10.
By intermission you could already sense the Wizards were on the verge of blowing the game wide open, as they drained 56.2% from the floor with Westbrook and Hachimura combining for 27 points on 9-for-17 shooting to take a 66-52 lead in an opening half in which they outscored the Pacers 40-24 in the paint.
“This is probably one of the best games we’ve played all year,” said Beal, who led the Wizards with a game-high 25 points on 9-for-17 from the floor and 4-for-7 from range. “It was definitely the most important one of the year. We were all locked in and engaged, man, for a full 48 minutes. It’s probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen us do all year.”
But for Indiana, the game quickly turned ugly.
With 5:37 left to play, Washington led by 38.
“I did like the way we were playing basketball the last 10-12 games of the season,” Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren said. “Tonight wasn’t the way we wanted it to go.”
Westbrook, Beal, Hachimura (18 points), Daniel Gafford (15 points, 13 rebounds, 5 blocks), and Raul Neto (14 points) played major roles in that.
In four games against the Pacers, including Thursday’s Play-In, Westbrook averaged 25 points, 15.5 rebounds and 18.8 assists.
The group faces a much more daunting task in the opening round of the playoffs Sunday at Philadelphia. The Sixers swept the Wizards in the three games they played during the regular season. But keep in mind all three of those matchups took place during the early doldrums of Washington’s season.
“They’ve overcome a lot,” Brooks said of his team. “But we’ve done things that there is no template, there’s no book that we could’ve read. We didn’t know 90% of the things that we were doing because we were learning it on the fly; not having practice, not having shootaround, being away from the team for 10 days, having seven guys basically miss three weeks in January. Then, all the injuries on top of that. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys, and I’m thankful that I’ve been [through] it [with] this group. They made it manageable, and they made it exciting.”
The Sixers walloped Washington 127-101 on Mar. 12, the last time the teams faced off. That defeat dropped the Wizards to 14-22 at the time.
But Washington contends it’s a different team now, as it returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
“We love what we’re capable of doing,” said Beal, who scored a career-high 60 points against the 76ers in the second meeting between the teams. “I think out of the two or three times we played them we feel like we could’ve won two games. It’ll definitely be interesting. It will be competitive. We haven’t seen them in a long time. We’re definitely excited about it. They’re a good team, obviously No. 1 in the East. We’ve got our hands full, and we realize that. But we’ve been playing really good as of late. So, we’ve got a lot of noise to make ourselves, too.”
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