Bradley Beal was right when he said after Washington’s 149-146 win over Brooklyn — its second victory over the Nets this season — that the game won’t radically alter the 4-12 Wizards, who have a mountain of work left to turn their season around.
But with Westbrook playing as he did Sunday, they at least have a flicker of hope in the face of a brutal February.
“The old me, I probably would’ve just kept playing and kept playing, and I would’ve never gotten to where I needed to be,” Westbrook said. “I want to make sure that I’m giving my team the best that I have, and I feel like in a lot of ways if I’m able to play I’ll play and leave it on the line regardless of the result. Just smartly, I wanted to take some time to myself and rest mentally and obviously physically to get my body right and be able to come back and help my team and put us in a position to be a better team.”
Washington’s bout against visiting Portland on Tuesday begins a stretch of 16 games in 27 days, including five back-to-backs. With the Wizards sticking to their predetermined plan to not play Westbrook on consecutive nights, that means the point guard will sit for nearly a third of those contests.
Performances like Sunday’s are precisely why Coach Scott Brooks stands by the organization’s resting plan. It was only after Westbrook, 32, was able to focus on recovering his leg for two straight weeks because of the team’s coronavirus layoff that he finally played at full strength.
“I’ve seen a few injuries that he’s had,” said Brooks, who also coached Westbrook years ago in Oklahoma City. “. . . He would do something I’ve never seen ever before: He would come back from an injury and be ready to go the next day and play high minutes and attack the basket like it’s his enemy. He didn’t do that this time, which, I’m glad, because he is an old man now. He needs to be smarter in his rehab. You see the difference the last three games; it’s nothing like he was playing the first ‘X’ number of games, because he feels better.”
Westbrook started slow when the Wizards resumed their season Jan. 24 and has steadily improved since, setting a season high for points in each of his past two games.
More importantly, Westbrook looked like himself in that he wasn’t forcing shots and settling for midrange jumpers. Westbrook had no problem inviting contact against Atlanta on Friday, when he scored 26 points and went 7 for 8 from the free throw line. On Sunday, he had 41 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists and served his purpose as Beal’s backcourt mate and fellow scoring threat.
Not only did the pair put together an 8-0 run in the final eight seconds, Westbrook’s energy — along with 19 points in the first half — was critical in keeping the Wizards out of quicksand when Beal wasn’t bringing his usual offense early on and they trailed by 18 points.
“Russ, he was unbelievable tonight on all levels,” Beal said. “… We needed that, and it was beautiful to see.”
The significance of Washington snapping its four-game losing streak behind performances from both of its all-star guards shouldn’t be underestimated, even if the game itself was a small step on a long road ahead. As Beal said, it was important for the Wizards to see that type of win after a rough stretch with a shorthanded roster last week prompted soul-searching comments from Beal, Brooks and Westbrook alike.
Brooks called himself “not a good covid coach” Friday, and Westbrook questioned if he needed to reevaluate his leadership approach. Getting the win Sunday injected the team with some desperately needed confidence.
“It’s big for me just because I believe leadership shows out when you win, guys do well, guys are happy, feel confident about their game and what they’re doing — that’s what I look for,” Westbrook said.
He later added that the true test of his leadership is how the Wizards build from here.
“Winning tonight and not coming the next day and being ready to play,” Westbrook said, “means nothing.”