NBA Playoff Preview: Wizards are no pushover despite being the lowest seed


Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/Matt Slocum

The Wizards easily defeated the Indiana Pacers in the final play-in game and now face the top-seeded Philadelphia Sixers in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

Lucas Corea, Sports Writer

The onset of May means that the NBA playoffs are rapidly approaching. With just a few games left to decide the final spots in the playoffs, the Washington Wizards look to sneak into one of the final spots of the 2021 playoffs.

Thanks to the new NBA rules, 20 out of the 30 teams now have a chance to qualify for the playoffs, with 10 coming from each conference as opposed to eight from each side in previous years prior. The ninth and tenth seeds in each conference, along with the seventh and eighth seeds, battle it out for two playoff spots, raising the stakes early on and discouraging lower end teams from tanking in situations where they would’ve been eliminated in the past. 

The teams that finished in seventh and eighth place in the conference standings will play a one game winner-takes-all where the winner will earn the seventh in the first round of the playoffs. The loser of the seventh vs eighth place game will face the winner of a playoff between the 9th and 10th seeds. Whichever team is victorious in this final game will advance and become the final seeded playoff team in each conference. 

Coming in as the 8th seed, Washington fell to the seventh-seeded Celtics in the first round of the play-in tournament, putting the Wizards in a win or go home situation against the 9th seeded Pacers, who were victorious over the Charlotte Hornets in blowout fashion in their play-in bout.

So what chance does Washington have against Indianapolis this upcoming game? On the season Washington looks to have the advantage considering they’ve won both of the previous three matchups; the most recent one coming in dramatic fashion with guard Russell Westbrook hitting clutch free throws to lift the Wizards to victory in overtime. Each of the Wizards’ three matchups against the Pacers have resulted in shootouts, with both teams scoring at least 120 points, with Washington coming out on top each time. 

Another major point to consider when Washington goes against the Pacers is the play of Russell Westbrook, which has been nothing less than astounding. In a season where Westbrook has averaged a triple double for the fourth time and has broken the record for the most career triple doubles, he has been at his best against Indianapolis. Averaging over 27 points, 20 assists and 17 rebounds in Westbrook’s three bouts with the Pacers, Westbrook has had the Pacers’ number this season, and it should be expected that he will perform with the season on the line. 

A concerning factor the Wizards face against Indianapolis is the health of Bradley Beal. A cornerstone of the team this season, Beal has averaged nearly 32 points a game and has carried the scoring load throughout the year to keep Washington in contention. Beal has dealt with a hamstring strain lately and will almost certainly not be playing at 100 percent. The Wizards will need him to be at his best as well in order to have a chance at advancing. 

UPDATE: The Washington Wizards were victorious over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night, completing their season sweep of the Pacers in a 142-115 drubbing. The Wizards are set to face the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. 

However, provided Washington does get past the Pacers, what will be in store after? A win against the Pacers would mean a best of 7 battle against the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.  The Wizards haven’t had the best success against the Philly this season, losing both matchups against them this season. 

With 76ers center Joel Embiid, a strong 2021 MVP candidate, at full strength, a series win against Philadelphia would be a monumental task. Embiid is one of the most dominant centers in the entire league and the Wizards’ options to match up against him remain meek. The Wizards have failed to contain Embiid in previous matchups, but their new three-headed core at center featuring Robin Lopez, Daniel Gafford, and Alex Len offers the Wizards more encouraging options that they’ve never had in past matchups against Philadelphia. 

Beyond Embiid, however, the Sixers also feature a solid offensive core headed by point guard Ben Simmons and power forward Tobias Harris. This trifecta, with Embiid, provides Philadelphia with a perfect blend of shooting, playmaking, and scoring in the paint. Small forward Danny Green and shooting guard Seth Curry allows Simmons and Embiid to have shooters available at all avenues, while Green, Simmons, and defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle will make life difficult for Westbrook and Beal with their stifling perimeter defense.

Washington has also shown signs of being able to compete with any team in the league lately. Over the last 20 games of the regular season, the Wizards finished 15-5, with three losses coming at a one point difference, and each of the other two coming within four. This incredible stretch included wins against top teams such as the Jazz and the Lakers, and each of the one-point losses came within the Bucks, Hawks, and Mavericks, all three being solid playoff teams. 

With a restructured team this season, Washington has put together quite the impressive run in a year where many had counted them out early. Westbrook has adjusted beautifully with his new team and his natural chemistry with Beal has the Wizards playing their best basketball at the perfect time. 

Aside from the star power of Westbrook and Beal, the Wizards will need help from their supporting cast in order to pull of an upset. Second-year forward Rui Hachimura may be their best option to step up, as the rest of the Wizards’ roster is filled with veterans such as Ish Smith and Davis Bertans, who are confined to their specific roles at this stage in their career.

Washington has also been a lot of fun to watch this year, with many close finishes, buzzer beaters, and overtime thrillers that will make Wizards fans look fondly upon the 2020-2021 season. While they may be the eighth seed in the playoffs, it would be a mistake to write the Wizards off completely.