Bradley Beal limped, grimaced and slogged up and down the court Sunday. The Washington Wizards star clearly was still battling through the hamstring injury that sidelined him for three games.
But to Beal, there wasn’t much of a question that he’d be out there. Not with so much on the line in Washington’s regular season finale.
“Ultimately, I just couldn’t let them down,” Beal said.
Beal and the Wizards pulled out a dramatic come-from-behind 115-110 victory Sunday over Charlotte Hornets, storming back in the fourth quarter to secure the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. As a result, Washington will now play the seventh-seeded Boston Celtics at 9 p.m. Tuesday in the NBA’s play-in tournament. The Hornets finished as the 10th seed.
Washington trailed by 11 at the start of the fourth, and erased a 16-point deficit overall. The Wizards did so behind Beal’s game-high 25 points and co-star Russell Westbrook’s 184th career triple-double (23 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists). Washington also received huge contributions from role players in guard Ish Smith (14 points, seven assists) and center Robin Lopez (18 points, six rebounds).
The stakes were clear for the Wizards Sunday: Win and they’re the eighth seed. Lose, and they’d fall back to 10.
The major difference between the spots is that if the Wizards finished 10th, they would have risked being eliminated with a loss Tuesday against the No. 9 seed Indiana Pacers. Now, if they lose to the Celtics on Tuesday, they’ll face the winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 matchup at Capital One Arena.
Simply put, the Wizards have more wiggle room to make the playoffs. They can also secure a postseason spot outright if they beat Boston to grab a hold of the seventh seed.
“This game kind of mimicked our season,” coach Scott Brooks said. “We were getting punched left and right and we just somehow kept battling. A play here and a play there. They had us on the ropes … but we just kept getting up and fighting for one another. I’ve been talking about brotherhood for a while now and this group is really the cold definition of brotherhood.”
When the Wizards look back on this season, 17-32 might be the starting point. That’s when Washington was 15 games under .500 on April 5. Its season looked derailed by injuries, inconsistent play and the three-week pause due to the COVID-19 outbreak in January.
But the Wizards entered Sunday having won 16 of their last 22, their spot in the play-in secured. Players credited a close on-court and off-court chemistry, helping them stick together even when league protocols often prevented them from routine activities like team dinners or bonding on the road.
The Wizards had already saved their season prior to meeting the Hornets, but the circumstances around Sunday’s showdown meant this game would essentially be the Wizards’ biggest in three years — since they last made the postseason. So naturally, the Wizards were glad to have Beal back, even if he wasn’t at 100%.
Beal’s return, however, did not translate to a strong start — from him or the rest of his teammates. Beal missed his first six shots and the Wizards couldn’t find any offensive rhythm as they fell behind 36-22 in the first. Though they battled back to cut Charlotte’s lead to four at halftime, Beal was just 2-of-11 from the field and settled mostly for jumpers.
The situation took another turn for the worse in the third. The Hornets ballooned their lead to as many as 16 as Washington failed to contain guards Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham. Charlotte did damage inside the paint and beyond the arc, going into the fourth with a 90-79 lead.
The Wizards, though, had one push left in them. And they started making stops. Reserve guard Ish Smith stripped Hornets center Cody Zeller clean on a layup attempt — leading to a Beal 3-pointer on the other end that cut the deficit to three. Later, a wide-open Westbrook tied it on his own three — firing off the shot after patiently taking his time.
Smith then gave the Wizards the lead to cap a 17-4 run, forcing the Hornets to call timeout.
As the two teams traded baskets and leads, Lopez came up big. The 33-year-old’s craft hook shot helped Washington establish an inside presence and his screening helped open lanes for Beal and Westbrook.
Beal’s driving layup with 2:53 left gave the Wizards the lead they never lost. Twenty of Beal’s 25 points came in the second half.
As they exited the court, Westbrook grabbed Beal to tell him how much he appreciated him.
“We fought through so much to get here now,” Westbrook said. “Nobody believed that we’d be here.”