- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2021

PHILADELPHIA — Russell Westbrook’s frustration kept escalating. As Wednesday’s elimination game for Washington dragged on, the Wizards guard repeatedly scowled, yelled and jumped up and down in fits of rage. An outburst after a shove on Danny Green here. A tirade after hacking Ben Simmons there. 

There were plenty of reasons for Westbrook to be mad. But none more so than the reality that gradually set in over the course of Philadelphia’s 129-112 win: The Wizards season was about to be over. And there was little Westbrook could do to stop it. 

Despite 32 points from Bradley Beal and another 24 from Westbrook, the Wizards were officially eliminated from the playoffs Wednesday, losing their first-round, best-of-seven series to Philadelphia, four games to one. 

Washington went down with a fight — pushing a Joel Embiid-less 76ers team for most of the contest. Philadelphia, though, got the lead in the second, made a push in third and slammed the door shut on the Wizards’ comeback hopes in the fourth. 

Now, the Wizards enter the offseason with pivotal questions to answer. Will owner Ted Leonsis retain coach Scott Brooks? Will he look to keep general manager Tommy Sheppard. And if the Wizards clean house, what does that mean for Beal, whose contract can expire after the 2021-22 season if the three-time All-Star does not pick up his player option?

“I love it here,” Brooks said. “There’s no decision in my mind, I love it here.”

These are decisions that the franchise had hoped to put off. Last month, Leonsis declined to weigh in on Brooks’ future — saying he was focused on the season at hand. That season is over now, and Brooks’ contract will be up in a matter of weeks. 

This, of course, isn’t how the Wizards wanted their year to end. Just to make the playoffs, Washington endured and overcame a trying year that saw multiple injuries, a COVID-19 outbreak and so many early losses that made the postseason seem like a pipedream. 

Washington stormed into the first round, having won 17 of its last 23 in the regular season — and then clinched a playoff spot after a dominant win over Indiana Pacers in the NBA’s new play-in tournament. 

Once in the playoffs, however, the Wizards were regularly outmatched against the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team. 

“Nobody should be holding their heads down,” Beal said. “Nobody put us really into the position we’re in. Nobody expected us to be here. … My message, the ultimate thing, was just to remember this feeling. A lot of guys, this was their first time in the playoffs.” 

The fact that this series even reached a Game 5 is commendable. The biggest reason that Washington was arguably in this position — why the Wizards weren’t swept — was because of Embiid’s first-quarter injury in Game 4. Washington seized on the big man’s absence and played well to force Wednesday’s contest. The injury, too, opened the door for Washington’s chances in the series, but the question would be how much.

Hours before tip-off, the 76ers announced that not only would Embiid miss Game 5, but that the four-time All-Star had a small meniscus tear in his right knee. Embiid was listed as day-to-day, and Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers refused to put a timetable on Embiid’s recovery.

“I can’t give you anything right now,” Rivers said pre-game. “I can just tell you he’s willing to go through whatever it takes to get back on the floor. He’s a warrior and if there’s a way for him to get back on the floor, he will find his way.”

The 76ers’ offense and defense change without Embiid on the floor. And to try and combat his loss, Rivers chose to go small to begin the game — starting Simmons, Philadelphia’s 6-foot-11 wing who normally handles point guard duties, at center instead of Dwight Howard (the more conventional choice). 

Without Embiid’s size clogging the middle, however, the Wizards were able to easily drive to the basket. That attack worked wonders in the first quarter as Washington jumped out to a lead early. The 76ers, though, adjusted and their second unit helped erase the deficit. Philadelphia went on a 12-5 run to close the first, tying the game at 29. 

Tensions escalated in the second. Both teams were particularly chippy, unhappy with the officiating. But the Wizards used the tight whistle to their advantage. By the end of the half, Washington had taken 20 free throw attempts, making 18. 

Even with the Wizards’ aggressive approach, the 76ers still led at halftime, up one (63-62) thanks to a 3-pointer from Green.

The 76ers took control in most of the ways they had previously beaten the Wizards. Their length was too much of a problem. Their 3-point shooting — by Seth Curry in particular — made it that much harder for Washington to come back. 

All that was missing for Philadelphia was Embiid’s dominance in the middle. But they managed to find a way. And now, they can hope that the MVP candidate can return for the next round. 

For the Wizards, there will be no next round. Only tough choices lay ahead, once the frustration wears off. 

“As far as management, as far as ownership, that’s not my decision,” Westbrook said. “Me personally, I don’t see why Scottie should go anywhere. And not just because we’re close but he’s done a hell of a job with our team, our program since I’ve been here. … I understand how important his impact was to the organization.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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