During an impassioned speech that took place in the middle of the season after a loss, Russell Westbrook told the Washington Wizards that they were going to make the playoffs despite all the injuries, a COVID-19 outbreak and losing streaks the team had to endure this season.
On Thursday night, Westbrook delivered on his vow, scoring 18 points, dishing 15 assists and grabbing eight rebounds to spark Washington’s emphatic 142-115 play-in tournament rout over the visiting Indiana Pacers to clinch the eighth seed.
Washington next faces the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday in the first round after completing a relentless run to a playoff berth that hasn’t been done in nearly 25 years. Once a dismal 17-32 on April 5, the Wizards became the first team to make the playoffs after being 15 games under .500 during the season since the Phoenix Suns in 1996-97.
It’s something that has been accomplished only six times since 1984.
“We were struggling and everybody was down on the outside and we had to figure out a way to knuckle up and make the playoffs,” Westbrook said about his playoff promise to the team. “Simple as that. I didn’t care what happened in the previous games. … We had to figure ourselves out, look at ourselves in the mirror, starting with myself.
“I made it clear to the guys that we’ll make it.”
Washington led by 14 at the half but blew the game wide open in the third quarter, making 15-of-20 shots and exploding for 48 points in the period.
The Wizards went on a 30-14 run at one point in the third, as Westbrook and Bradley Beal (25 points) overwhelmed Indiana. Beal scored 16 points in the quarter, including taking a bounce pass from Westbrook on a backdoor cut for a thunderous baseline dunk. As Beal hung on the rim, Westbrook turned back up the court and let out a primal scream while raising both of his arms in the air.
The 5,333 fans on hand celebrated as the franchise was heading to its first playoff appearance since 2017-18.
“Probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen us do all year,” Beal said of Thursday’s result. “I haven’t been in the playoffs in three years. I’m definitely happy to be back.”
Thursday’s win comes after Washington played one of its worst games in months on Tuesday and lost 118-100 to the Boston Celtics to drop into the game against Indiana for the final seed of the playoffs.
None of the Wizards looked great in that loss at Boston, including Westbrook, who finished with 20 points, 14 rebounds and five assists while shooting 6-for-18 and missing all four of his 3-point attempts. The point guard didn’t look right, nor did he have nearly the same energy and aggression he had been playing with for months during his triple-double assault in breaking Oscar Robertson’s all-time triple-doubles career record this season.
Westbrook, who will be playing in a postseason for the 11th time in 12 years, admitted he wasn’t feeling 100% and was dealing with some “nicks and bruises.”
“I was so pissed in my performance,” Westbrook said. “Just wasn’t feeling the best when my team needed me the most. Everything happens for a reason. I knuckled down and took care of my body and made sure my mind was right coming into tonight and making sure my energy and effort was there and my team could follow me.”
The playoffs were practically a dream when the Wizards were in the middle of a nightmarish start to the season. They endured a COVID-19 outbreak that brought the organization to a complete halt for nine days and landed seven players in health and safety protocols. And they’ve sustained season-ending injuries to starting center Thomas Bryant and first-round pick Deni Avdija.
“We have done things, there’s no template, there is no book that we could have read [on how to handle],” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “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 and all the injuries on top of that.”
But that was all a distant memory as the blowout was apparent in the third quarter. Before Brooks turns his attention to Joel Embiid and the Sixers, he remembers how Westbrook’s leadership and playoff promise helped turn this season around.
“I don’t even remember what game [it was], he gave a very passionate, very direct talk to the group,” Brooks said. “He was like, I am not going through this season and not making the playoffs. Not that he predicted it, but he said I am not going to let this happen and not make the playoffs. We are going to step up and fight for one another.
“[It was] almost like, you guys better be ready for what is about to take place, and it turned around.”