The Wizards were 17-32 on April 5, and had just lost the first of a six-game road trip. They were on a four-game losing streak and it seemed all that was left to do was make golf reservations. But then Russell Westbrook gathered his teammates and gave, what his coach said, was “a very passionate, very direct talk.”
“We were struggling and everybody was doubting us on the outside and we had to knuckle up,” Westbrook said.
The Wizards closed 17-6 and survived the play-in for the right to meet the top-seeded Sixers. As a comparison, the Sixers closed 15-8 over their final 23. This might be a matchup of 1-8 seeds in name only.
Here’s a primer of their first-round series.
1. Eight of Westbrook’s record *184 regular-season triple-doubles have come against the Sixers, including the one he had in December in a Wizards’ loss. His teams are 19-5 against Philadelphia. (Asterisk: Blocked shots weren’t official until 1974-75, so this record is pre-Wilt Chamberlain.)
2. Westbrook has posted a triple-double in 19.5% or his regular-season games (184 of 943), and 9.4% of his playoff contests (10 of 106). His teams are just 5-5 in the playoffs when he puts up a trip-dub.
3. This will be the first time in 35 years the Sixers play Washington in the postseason. Two months after the Sixers beat the then-Bullets in the first round in 1986, they traded Moses Malone to Washington in a deal that brought Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson.
4. Ben Simmons was 3-for-10 on three-pointers this season, a career-high for both made and attempted deep shots. He has attempted one three-pointer in 22 postseason games, a 34-foot heave before a halftime buzzer in 2018.
5. Because he missed last year’s postseason with a knee injury, Simmons’ last playoff game was the bounce-bounce-bounce-bounce Kawhi Leonard game in 2019, which feels like a million years ago.
6. Joel Embiid’s rating in that seven-game Toronto series was plus-89. In last year’s dismal sweep by the Celtics, he was minus-53.
7. BetMGM’s odds on the Sixers to win the NBA title are +750. They have Joel Embiid at +1000 to win the Finals’ MVP. If they even get there, it’s hard to see the Sixers winning the championship without Embiid being the series MVP. That might be the better mathematical play -- for those who do that kind of thing, that is.
“Russell has an edge, and I think the world should appreciate that. He gives you everything. He’s a hooper. And sometimes, he’s an angry hooper. But he’s a hooper that just plays the right way and plays hard.”
8. The Wizards had to shut down for two weeks in January after an outbreak put nine players on the COVID-19 quarantine list. They were desperate for players when they signed Alex Len, who is now the starting center.
9. Dwight Howard had an impressive 8.4 rebounds per game despite averaging less than 18 minutes. His last four postseason runs have been with four different teams (Houston, Atlanta, L.A. Lakers, Sixers). Howard won his first championship last year while with the Lakers.
10. Howard’s mother, Sheryl, endured seven miscarriages before giving birth to Dwight on Dec. 8, 1985. His family, including his brother and sister, were in New York when he was the first draft pick in 2004.
11. ’'We try to explain to them,” Howard’s father Dwight Sr. explained back then, “that you’re looking at a situation where you have 10 children and out of those 10, seven of them have gone on to be with the Lord, but three of them were allowed to be here on earth for some reason. I think Dwight’s grabbing a hold of what his reason is.”
12. The Sixers were second in the league in defensive rating (107.6 points allowed per 100 possessions). Washington was 19th (113.0). Offensively, the Sixers were 13th (113.2), the Wizards were 18th (111.2).
13. Washington’s Bradley Beal has been second in the NBA in scoring the last two seasons, finishing behind James Harden in 2019-20 and Steph Curry this year. His scoring averages the last four seasons: 22.6, 25.6, 30.5, 31.3.
14. Beal dropped 60 points on the Sixers in January, tied with Kemba Walker for the most ever by an opponent not named Wilt Chamberlain. The Sixers won the game (141-136) as Beal was a minus-9.
15. Beal’s parents are named Bobby and Besta and his four brothers are Brandon, Bruce, Byron, and Bryon. Raised in St. Louis, his dad worked nights at a Chrysler plant. Mom played hoops in college and taught Bradley how to shoot. Bradley’s $28.7 million salary this season goes up to $34.5 mil next year.