Before dismissing the Washington Wizards as a fluke team with no
chance of advancing, ask yourself this: Who are the two best
players in the Washington-Philadelphia first-round series?
The easy answer is Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The unpopular
answer is Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, because Westbrook is
polarizing and Beal has been playing on one good leg.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between, so the important
question to ask is this: Who has had the better spring?
Westbrook has had seven triple-doubles this month, just missing
an eighth Thursday night as Washington took apart the Indiana
Pacers, 142-115, in their play-in game for the eighth seed in the
conference. He will now go up against Simmons, whose last
triple-double was March 17 in an overtime loss to the Milwaukee
Bucks, one of four triple-doubles Simmons put together this
Westbrook has had four of ‘em since May 8, folks, and broke
Oscar Robertson’s career record while accumulating 38 of them this
season. So dismiss him and his Wizards at your own peril.
“We’ve got some tough guys in this locker room that I believe
in,” said Westbrook, who tossed his sneakers into the crown with
just over four minutes left when this one had long since been
decided. “Hopefully we can shock the world.”
What was astonishing about Thursday night was the severity of
the beating Washington put on the Pacers, who failed to make the
postseason for the first time since 2014-15. They have not won a
single playoff game since the first round in 2017-18, and although
the absence of Caris LaVert (health and safety protocols) Myles
Turner, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb (injuries) are a huge part of
the explanation for their lost season, Indiana now appears to be
the clubhouse leader in the race to determine which franchise will
go nuclear in the offseason.
But back to the Wizards, who will be counted out by those prone
Before jumping on that bandwagon, consider the fact that
Westbrook has 106 career playoff games on his tires, along with the
exact type of competitive spirit that Philly coach Doc Rivers has
been working all year to harness from Embiid, a finalist for MVP,
and Simmons, a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year.
In their three matchups this season, Westbrook shot 10-for-19 on
March 12, 8-for-18 on Jan. 6 and 9-for-22 on opening night, as the
Wizards lost three times.
But March 12 was eons ago, and it should be noted that what we
have seen from Washington since April 7 is 18 wins in 24 games. You
know who can match that winning percentage over that same span?
Only one team, and if you knew it was the New York Knicks, congrats
on staying engaged during this strangest of NBA seasons.
But aside from win-loss percentage, even the Knicks cannot stand
up to the Wizards’ points per game (123.9), field goal percentage
(49.8%) and points in the paint production (60.5). All are the best
in the entire NBA since April 7.
A big part of that has been Westbrook, who has carried the team
over the final part of the regular season as Beal has struggled
with a hamstring injury. Beal had 25 points in just 28 minutes
Thursday night, and big contributions came on the defensive end
from Alex Len and Daniel Gafford in making Domantas Sabonis work
extra hard for each of his 19 points.
Gafford had five blocks in the first half and finished with 18
points and 15 rebounds in what will be remembered as his coming-out game. Len, now in his
eighth season after switching teams five times since being the No.
5 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, is headed to the postseason
for the first time. Lots of folks have given up on him already, but
he is one of the guys still standing this season.
“They’re not always easy, but none of our coaches can say
anything bad about any of our guys because they compete real hard
every night,” said Brooks, who recalled “knowing what we were
getting” when Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard pulled the
trigger on the deal that sent John Wall to Houston for
Brooks recalled how Westbrook addressed the team midseason and
angrily told his teammates he was determined not to miss the
playoffs, saying that was likely the moment when everyone on the
Wizards sort of jumped aboard the resiliency bandwagon and put
their 17-32 record behind them.
Brooks was especially appreciative of the noise produced by the
crowd of roughly 5,000 fans, which was the largest and loudest
crowd in the nation’s capital since… oh, never mind. Jan. 6 is not
an important day in Washington basketball history. April 7 is,
because that is the day that the Wizards’ season turned around.
Beal has nine years in the bank along with 40 career playoff
games as the guy who by far is the longest-tenured member of the
organization when it comes to the roster. Beal has been around long
enough to have been teammates with the likes of Earl Barron, Nene
Hilario, Shaun Livingston, Emeka Okafor, Andre Miller, Drew Gooden
and Al Harrington. The 27-year-old finished second to Steph Curry
in scoring at 31.3 points per game. Curry averaged 31.98 in the
closest scoring race since Carmelo Anthony (28.66) topped Kevin
Durant (28.15) in 2012-13.
The Wizards were the third-highest-scoring team in the NBA and
took more free throws per game (20.1) than anyone. They were among
the teams hit hardest by COVID-19 early in the season (as covered here in this
behind-the-scenes piece by former Wizard Troy Brown Jr.), and
they had a front-row seat for all of the histrionics that have
taken place in the District of Columbia since 2020 turned into
They are still standing, led by Westbrook, Beal and Brooks, an
NBA lifer who kept a jersey from every single NBA team he ever
played for. He is tight with Westbrook, whose competiveness should
not be underestimated, Brooks warned.
Let’s see what happens vs. Philly, but one guarantee: With the
way the Wizards have been playing the past six weeks, they are not
going to be an easy out.
“In Boston, I was terrible; I let my teammates down,” Westbrook
said. “We’ve got some tough guys in this locker room that I believe
in. Hopefully we can shock the world.”