The Wizards wanted this. They wanted to scrape and fight for their season even when it bordered on disaster six weeks ago, with their record at 17-32, and had the look of a train wreck unfolding in painfully slow motion. They searched desperately for solutions to season-ending injuries, to chronic inconsistency, and to a defense that seemed, at the time, to be fatally flawed. They gained ground. They improvised. They played for months like this shit matters. Bradley Beal limped to the finish of the regular season on a strained hamstring, keying a comeback win over Charlotte in the season finale just to secure an eighth-place finish and guarantee Washington two final cracks to make the playoffs.
On Thursday, the Wizards made good by dismantling the Pacers with a 142-115 win, the kind that allowed Russell Westbrook the rare opportunity to sit back, kick off his shoes, and take in the final few minutes from the bench. Somehow, even that bloated margin doesn’t quite convey the difference in focus between the two teams. “We were all locked in and engaged, man, for a full 48 minutes,” Beal told reporters after the game. “It was probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen us do all year.”
This was the second of the five play-in tournament games thus far to end in a complete blowout—the third if you count the Wizards’ first attempt at postseason qualification, which was competitive until Boston’s Jayson Tatum decided it wasn’t. Whatever drama the Eastern Conference undercard could muster was drained completely by the time Washington finished the third quarter of Thursday’s contest with a 31-point lead. Still it meant something to see a team break through because it had spent months striving for it, rather than simply fall into it. One of the unfortunate side effects of the rise of tanking in the NBA is the way it turned teams earnestly competing for the eighth seed into a sort of punch line, as if it were foolish to value making the playoffs for its own sake. Washington would have made the postseason even without the play-in opportunity, as the final standings turned out, but the fact that a team could grind into the playoffs from a finish as low as 10th place kept a light on for teams trying to find their way back after ugly starts.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that Washington, even with the wind at its back, will have much of a chance in a series against the top-seeded Sixers, led by an MVP finalist in Joel Embiid and a Defensive Player of the Year finalist in Ben Simmons. But getting the chance to try matters, and always has. Just ask Beal, who hasn’t seen the postseason since 2018. “I always enjoy playing the game, because these gifts can always be taken from you,” Beal said. “But it feels that much better knowing you’re playing for something and you’re winning.” Watch Westbrook, who started the season on a torn quad and clearly isn’t 100 percent even now, grind out possessions and, yes, another near-triple-double. Or better yet, watch them together as they connected on this possession, where a half-drive from Westbrook cleared a runway for Beal to dart backdoor for a two-handed dunk:
Beal dismounted with the kind of mean mug that could barely contain the smile underneath. Westbrook roared out to the arena, turning the moment into what is already one of the season’s most memorable images. This was a team whose playoff odds were set at less than 1 percent last month; whose season was completely derailed by COVID-19; whose season was once chronicled through Beal’s (understandably) moody reaction shots. Now they move forward, an idea that would have seemed incomprehensible even a month ago.
It’s a precious thing, no matter how a series against Philly might go. The career of someone like Westbrook seems long, but the reality is that a player gets only so many cracks at this—at really competing in the way that only the playoffs allow. Just getting back to that place is an accomplishment for Beal, and a not-insignificant development for the franchise that hopes to keep him in D.C. The play-in tournament gave 23-year-old Rui Hachimura a chance to bounce back from a disappointing outing against Boston to find his spots and body smaller wings in a game that mattered; the playoffs will test him in ways he can’t yet fully realize. A trio of cast-off centers (Daniel Gafford, Robin Lopez, and Alex Len) may have saved the Wizards’ season by stabilizing their defense. Now they’ll contend with Embiid, the sort of challenge that can be daunting and invigorating in equal measure.
“They put their socks on one sock at a time, just like us,” Scott Brooks said after his team secured the matchup with the Sixers. “Unless they’re doing something tricky, putting two socks on, but I don’t think so.”
Folksy charms aside, it always seemed as if Brooks might be coaching for his job this season, his fifth with the Wizards—a perception reinforced by governor Ted Leonsis’s rather cryptic appraisal of his team’s head coach. Maybe making the playoffs was enough to earn Brooks another year. Maybe it all still depends.
There’s always something to play for. Lopez, Len, Ish Smith, and Raul Neto (excuse me, starting small forward Raul Neto) all will be free agents, with contracts on the line. Davis Bertans, who’s had a rough go of it on the floor since signing a five-year, $80 million deal last year, might get a shot to validate that investment against one of the best teams in the league. Moreover, the Wizards have the opportunity they bought and paid for with months on the regular-season grind, when probability itself seemed to give them every reason to fold. “We just knew what was at stake,” Beal said. “We fought our tails off to put us in the eighth seed to begin with.” And then, with all of it on the line, Washington sprinted through the tape, leaving nothing to chance.