- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2021

When the Wizards were rolling in April, Charles Barkley made a declaration: Washington would win the play-in tournament. And not just that, but the Hall of Famer and “Inside the NBA” analyst said “none of those teams” in the Eastern Conference should want to see the Wizards in the playoffs. 

“I love Russ [Westbrook] and Bradley Beal,” Barkley said. 

Barkley’s take centered around the idea that in a must-win, possible one-game setting like the play-in tournament, Westbrook and Beal — two legitimate stars — would be more dangerous than your typical, sub-.500 team. 

The opinion might not be far off. When the Wizards take on the Boston Celtics Tuesday in the league’s play-in tournament, Washington may very well have the two best players on the floor. The Wizards are still narrow one-point underdogs on the road, but the Celtics come into the tournament struggling and without All-Star guard Jaylen Brown (season-ending wrist surgery).

For the Wizards, the question becomes just how much can they rely on their stars — especially with Beal’s nagging hamstring strain. Speaking to reporters Monday, Beal said he likely won’t be 100% in time for Tuesday’s showdown but will manage the injury.

The three-time All-Star scored 25 points in Sunday’s regular-season finale over the Hornets, though he had to overcome a slow start and shot just 8-of-27 from the field. Beal said he did not suffer a setback in the victory and should be good to go against Boston.

Even with injury concerns, the Wizards ultimately will have the league leader in assists (Westbrook) and the second-leading scorer in Beal

Beal said having him and Westbrook “breeds confidence” heading into a win-and-in game. The Wizards are 17-6 in their last 23.

“It just trickles down to everybody,” said Beal, who averaged 31.2 points per game this season. “It gives everyone a sense of security in a way and positivity. … At the end of the day, it’s not all about me. It’s  about my teammates, helping them out and giving them a self of confidence and belief that this is what I want to do, this is where I want to be and I’m going to help in any way I can.” 

Beal said that’s why he ultimately decided to play Sunday. He said he wanted to go out there and contribute — even if it was just to act as a decoy. The 27-year-old told reporters he felt better as the game progressed in part because in the first quarter, he took off the tape wrapped around his hamstring.

The Wizards and the Celtics met three times in the regular season — but the past meetings most likely won’t hold much weight in Tuesday’s contest. After all, both teams have undergone significant changes since their last meeting on Feb. 28. The Wizards acquired center Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline, while Boston picked up guard Evan Fournier. The Celtics, too, badly miss Brown, their second leading scorer at 19.6 points per game. 

Boston, though, is still favored for a reason. Two-time All-Star Jayson Tatum is a lethal scorer and Washington doesn’t have a wing who matches up with him. It’s why Wizards coach Scott Brooks has opted to use Beal as Tatum’s primary defender — despite Tatum’s five-inch height advantage. 

The Celtics also have a high-ceiling, albeit inconsistent backcourt with Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart. Both have dealt with injuries, but can provide problems for teams depending on the night. 

“We have a lot of respect for Boston, how they play,” Brooks said. “They have some great players.”

These two teams have postseason history, of course. The Wizards were one game away from the Eastern Conference finals in 2017, but the Celtics knocked them out in Game 7. That series, too, was heated with the Celtics showing up to Capital One Arena wearing all black for a funeral, spoofing the Wizards’ fashion statement earlier in the season. 

The two teams are much different now. Beal and Smart are the only players left on their respective rosters who played in those games. The Celtics, though, have been an annual playoff contender. The Wizards? This could be their first trip back to the playoffs since 2018. 

If the Wizards win, they’ll face the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets in the first round. If they lose, they’ll face the winner of No. 9 Indiana and No. 10 Charlotte on Thursday for the eighth seed. 

Beal said missing the playoffs the last two years “definitely matured my game,” but he’s eager to get back.  

“I’m definitely excited to be back where we belong,” Beal said. “We’re a playoff-type team. And so I’m happy we gave ourselves the opportunity to finish out the year the way we did.”

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