Wizards primed for playoff action after overcoming challenging regular season
On Thursday might, the Wizards played what may have been their best game of the 2020-21 season, defeating the Pacers 142-115 in an elimination game for the final spot in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Bradley Beal put up an efficient 25 points. Russell Westbrook finished with a plus-30 rating, recording 15 assists and just three turnovers. Daniel Gafford notched a double-double and five blocks. The Wizards shot 58.1% from the field, 50.0% from 3-point range and led by 20-plus points for the final 18:46 of the game.
The win came on the heels of a disappointing loss in Boston two nights before, which followed a down-to-the-wire win in a must-have game against Charlotte. Washington’s up-and-down week felt like an encapsulation of an entire season riddled with unforeseen challenges.
Some of those challenges, like injuries to key players, were common to the grind of an NBA season. Westbrook missed time early in the season as he dealt with a quad injury, Thomas Bryant suffered an ACL injury in January that ended his season, Beal was out of the lineup with hip and hamstring ailments and rookie wing Deni Avdija fractured his ankle late in regular season.
Other hurdles that the Wizards faced were unique to this season, most notably a 13-day hiatus in January due to health and safety protocols. Washington did not play a game from January 11 to January 24, went without practicing for 10 days and could only see one another driving by for COVID testing in the parking lot of the practice facility.
“There’s no template,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said. “There’s no book that we could have read…We were just learning it on the fly. Not having practice, not having shootaround, being away from the team for 10 days, having seven guys miss basically three weeks in January – and then all the injuries on top of that. But I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys and I’m thankful that I’ve been through it with this group because they made it manageable and they made it exciting. I’m thankful to coach this group.”
Through it all, the Wizards continued to exude confidence that they would turn things around. Washington won seven of eight games over a two-week stretch just before the All-Star break, but seemed to lose all their momentum when they returned to action after the break, starting the second half of the season 3-12.
Then the trade deadline arrived. On the afternoon of March 25, the Wizards acquired Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchison from the Bulls as part of a three-team deal with Chicago and Boston. Hutchison brought a versatile skillset and a defensive switchability that has proven useful down the stretch of the season. Gafford provided the Wizards with a skillset that Brooks described as “exactly what we needed.” Gafford boasts elite athleticism for his size, capable of pulling down lob passes from anywhere and protecting the rim with highlight-reel blocks.
“He’s coachable, he wants to get better; he has an enthusiasm for the game,” Brooks said on Thursday night. “He’s a smart kid…From what I’ve seen from the last couple months, that’s a big, big, big time pickup for (Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard) and our group.”
“I feel this trade was the best thing that could have happened to me with the situation that I was in in Chicago,” Gafford said after totaling 15 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks Thursday against the Pacers. “They told me I had a job here…to block shots, set screens in the pick and roll and catch lobs – simple as that. (Brooks) gave me the freedom to do what I want to do in the games. At the end of the day, I just come out and play.”
From April 7 to the end of the regular season, the Wizards climbed from 13th in the East up to 8th, recorded a league-best 17 wins, and were top-10 in offensive rating (116.2), defensive rating (110.5) and net rating (5.7).
The deadline acquisition of Gafford makes for an easy checkpoint on the calendar to look to as the moment the Wizards turned the season around, but behind the scenes, leadership from the team’s veterans – specifically a mid-season speech from Westbrook – laid the foundation for the team’s improved play.
Brooks recounted the speech after Thursday’s win over Indiana: “He gave a very passionate, very direct talk to the group, (saying) ‘I am not going through this season and not making the playoffs.’”
“At the time, we were struggling and everybody was doubting us on the outside,” Westbrook said. “We had to figure out a way to knuckle up and make the playoffs. Simple as that. I didn’t care what happened the previous games. Moving forward, we had to figure ourselves out, look ourselves in the mirror, starting with myself, and I made it clear to the guys that we will (make the playoffs).”
While Westbrook is frequently credited for his locker room presence, bringing MVP-caliber leadership and valuable experience from a number of deep playoff runs, Beal has provided an equally impactful example on the court. Beal has been the team’s rock all season long, becoming just the sixth player in league history to average 30.0 points per game in consecutive seasons. He’s recorded 34 games with at least 30 points, eight games with at least 40 and two with at least 50, including a 60-point outburst against the Sixers in January. In the last two weeks, Beal tweaked his ankle and suffered a left hamstring strain that caused him to miss three games, but returned to action when the Wizards needed it most – their season finale against Charlotte with Play-In seeding on the line. After playing through noticeable discomfort through the first three quarters, Beal came alive in the fourth, scoring 13 of his 25 points to lead a double-digit Wizards comeback to clinch the eight-seed in the Play-In Tournament. Beal acknowledges that he’s not at 100% and likely won’t be as he continues to fight through the discomfort.
“There’s not going to be any significant changes, especially if I’m playing – it’s obviously going to wear down a little bit,” Beal said of the injury after Thursday’s win. “But it’s been feeling better. (Thursday), I was a little more comfortable and confident in it…I’m still being cautious about certain movements out there on the floor, but I’m able to move and manipulate some things that work in my favor. (With) a seven-game series, there’s no change in my approach. Everybody’s hurt during this time, obviously mine is a little bit more significant, but it’s all about the team and taking care of my body…I’ll do whatever it takes to win. That’s all I care about.”
Sunday afternoon, the Wizards begin the playoff journey they fought for all season, one that seemed nearly impossible at so many different points over the course of the last five months.
“I’m excited about the group,” Brooks said. “I knew that we would bounce back. I’m excited that we did it in the way that we did on both ends of the floor. What we’ve been through, I’ve said it, documented it, talked about it enough, but it still feels great. Any time you can stick together through some tough times and keep fighting for one another – that’s what sport is all about and that’s what teams are all about. We’ve got a good group of guys. That’s why I love coaching this team, because they’re always challenging each other and pushing each other.”