Clinching Play-In Spot Required Epic Comeback From Wizards

Clinching play-in spot required epic comeback from Wizards originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

There will always be some unknowns about the 2020-21 season for the Wizards, and the NBA for that matter. We know players contracted the coronavirus, recovered and returned to play. But the true extent to which they were affected, we may never fully grasp.

Those within the organization could only say so much publicly, for they didn't want to come off as if they were making excuses. But even the Wizards' medical staff likely can't quantify exactly how much their players were hampered by a novel virus that affects breathing and endurance.

Covid-19, however, was certainly an obstacle the Wizards had to overcome, as they had six games postponed in January and many more affected by their return with an incomplete rotation and then a host of key players playing catch-up to the rest of the league. They also had significant injuries, from losing Thomas Bryant and Deni Avdija for the season, to having many others go down or play hurt like Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans. 

In hindsight, there were full stretches of this season where the Wizards didn't have the personnel to compete with other NBA teams. Still, there were also parts of this season where they had more than enough, yet they just couldn't push forward.

The Wizards cratered to 15 games under .500, at 17-32, on April 5. They had lost 14 of their last 18 games. Then, somehow, they gained steam very quickly to win 16 of their next 22, capped by Friday's win over the Cavaliers to clinch a spot in the play-in tournament.

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It has been an unprecedented season and one they experienced to the full extent, but now they are postseason bound.

"It’s a great feeling for everybody involved, our entire organization," head coach Scott Brooks said. "We chipped away, we were down, we took a bunch of punches. But we just kept standing up and fighting for one another and it put us in this position... I’ve been in the league a long time. When you’re 15 games under .500, you’re doing the ‘okay, where are we going for vacation?’"

Brooks said the most frustrating part of this season was how difficult it was to pull themselves out of their lowest moments. He felt like they were doing things the right way, they just weren't being rewarded with wins.

Along the way, Brooks always kept a good face in the public. He never wavered in his belief they could turn things around, at times proclaiming that they would, even when it seemed highly improbable. He wasn't alone in that regard - many players remained optimistic to the media.

Westbrook was consistently defiant after losses, saying the team had to play better but was capable of doing so.

"I never doubted it, honestly," Westbrook said. "I knew once we got healthy and everyone was clicking, it would put us in a good position to make a run. We did that, we had a quick turnaround and put ourselves in a position to be where we are now."

That doesn't mean it was a straightforward process. The Wizards had to find their groove while navigating a season Beal memorably said back in January was "not normal". One of the biggest challenges was the schedule itself, with games every other day with few opportunities to even practice.

Regular Covid testing has often required quick turnarounds, sometimes at 8 a.m. the morning after flying back late from a road trip. The Wizards had to day-part their facility to accommodate both the Wizards and the Mystics. Some days, the Wizards had to be out by the early afternoon so the facilities could be sanitized.

NBA players are used to operating much more freely. They can usually work often and whenever they choose. But that hasn't been the case this season, and without practices, they had to build chemistry and make schematic changes in games.

"It’s tough. You see T.B. go down, we have Covid, eight of our guys are out. It’s very easy to just fall into that trap and say this is what we’re doing, this is the year we’re having," Beal said. 

"But we weren’t full strength, we didn’t have a lot of practices to come back. Those aren’t excuses, this is just reality and facts."

As the Wizards played themselves into the playoff picture in April and then kept it going in May, players began to share more details about their early season plight. Take, for instance, what Raul Neto said in April about playing during a pandemic.

"On the side, there have been all these things going on for me personally. Seeing how Brazil is being hit with Covid and how people are losing lives and losing family members. I know a lot of people there who are losing friends and family members. I’m out here playing a game and trying to think not much about it," he said. 

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"It’s hard. Knowing my parents are down there, my family’s down there and you never know what’s going to happen. I’m just trying to stay connected with them the more I can. They can’t really come to see me. I haven’t seen my parents in like two years since Covid hit, so it’s been tough. But I’m doing what I love. My parents and my family know that I’m chasing my dreams. You’ve gotta see the positives."

The positives are easier to see now. The Wizards close out their regular season on Sunday, possibly with a chance to secure the eight-seed in the East. Regardless, they will be playing at least one more game on Tuesday in the first round of the play-in tournament. Win there and they earn a first round playoff series.

All of a sudden, this season that was left for dead has all sorts of possibilities, all because the Wizards stuck through it for an unlikely comeback.

"It’s definitely a good feeling. It’s just the start of what we’re capable of doing," Westbrook said.

Tune into NBC Sports Washington at 12 on Sunday for full coverage of the Wizards' final regular season game.

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