The Play-In Tournament has received some criticism but if you're a fan of the game, there's no reason not to love it. In a normal year, the group of teams fighting for the final Play-In spots would typically already be all but out of playoff contention. But because of the Play-In Tournament, these teams are still grinding for wins to make a late push to keep playoff hopes alive.
One team, in particular, that has been a huge beneficiary of the Play-In Tournament is the late-blooming Washington Wizards, who, despite having a recent eight-game winning streak snapped, are still surging their way into the playoff picture with just over 10 games to play.
How is it that a team that was 15 games under .500 in the first week of April is all of a sudden looking like a terrifying Play-In opponent?
The answer is pretty simple: Russell Westbrook is heating up at just the right time.
Ahead of the 2020-21 season, the Wizards took a leap of faith by sending their long-time franchise cornerstone in John Wall, who was coming off of a two-year absence due to a torn Achilles along with a first-round pick to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Westbrook. At the time, it looked like the two franchises were swapping star guards on the wrong side of 30 for a change of scenery.
Through the first 20-or-so games of the season, it appeared that Washington may have made a mistake - particularly in giving up that 2023 first-rounder.
Westbrook was slow to get out of the gate as he was still dealing with a handful of ailments.
At the start of the season, the 32-year-old guard was still working on his conditioning after dealing with COVID-19 over the summer. On top of that, Westbrook was still battling a quad injury that had carried over from the bubble, forcing him to sit out on back-to-backs through the first two months of the season.
Westbrook was set to miss a chunk of time with that quad injury back in January, but his team became plagued by a COVID outbreak, forcing the Wizards to miss two full weeks of action, which ended up allowing Westbrook time to rest. However, for a player joining a new team, continuity was hard to come by with a two-week hiatus thrown into the mix following a shortened offseason.
As a result, Westbrook was far from his usual self prior to the All-Star break, missing out on an All-Star selection for just the second time in the past 11 seasons (with the other being injury-related in 2013-14) despite nearly averaging a triple-double.
With his name not even in the mix for All-Star consideration, there appeared to be a chip placed on Westbrook's shoulder. Since the All-Star break, the former MVP has looked like a past version of himself, elevating his play to carry his team back into the playoff picture.
Westbrook has improved his averages in every major statistical category since being ignored as a potential All-Star, averaging a 23-12-12 triple-double. Playing like a man possessed, he has been sleep-walking his way to the feat he's become known for, doing everything in his power to help the Wizards pick up wins.
No player in the NBA has more triple-doubles than Westbrook's 29. Who has the second-most triple-doubles in the NBA, you ask?
The correct answer is MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic with 15 but an alternate answer is post-All-Star Westbrook, who has accrued 20 triple-doubles since the midseason break alone.
Among those would be arguably the most impressive triple-double of his career, as he dropped 35 points, dished out 21 assists and pulled down 14 rebounds in a crucial win over the Indiana Pacers back at the end of March.
Russell Westbrook drops the FIRST 35+ point, 20+ assist triple-double in @NBAHistory, powering the @WashWizards!- NBA (@NBA) March 30, 2021
35 PTS | 14 REB | 21 AST pic.twitter.com/bkM5imrJQa
And if you're bored with triple-double talk - which has been normalized by the anomaly that is Westbrook - it's more than just empty-calorie stats. Westbrook himself spoke on that following the Wizards' win-streak snapping loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
"If people want to take it for granted, that's sorry for them," he told the media. "If everybody could (average a triple-double), they would do it. I impact the game in many ways. Defending, rebounding, passing, whatever it is that my team needs from me to be able to win. That's all I do.
"I don't care if people want to call it stat-padding," he continued. "...I think it's very interesting that it's not useful, now that I'm doing it, when it was useful when Magic (Johnson) and Oscar (Robertson) were doing it. But now that I do it and it looks easy - and this [expletive] ain't easy, though - I take a lot of pride in my preparation, taking care of my body, competing every night. I don't cheat the game."
It's hard to argue with that closing statement from a player who brings the utmost intensity every single time he steps on the floor. And what he's doing as of late is contributing to winning, especially his play down the stretch of close games.
According to NBA stats, Westbrook has been the most efficient player in the clutch (min. 50 FGA) in the entire NBA this season, converting a league-leading 54.9 percent of his field goal attempts when the stakes are at their highest.
To add to that, he's shooting a much-improved 39.1 percent from 3-point range and 78.3 percent from the free throw line in the clutch, while also ranking in the top 10 in the league in clutch rebounds and assists, showing he truly takes his game to another level when the Wizards need him most.
During the Wizards' eight-game win streak, All-Star guard Bradley Beal was back, healthy and balling out, but the list of names that filled the starting lineup alongside he and Westbrook have been ... interesting.
Starting centre Thomas Bryant suffered a season-ending ACL injury just 10 games into the season, rookie top-10 pick Deni Avdija was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a hairline fracture in his ankle that occurred last week and last year's top-10 pick, Rui Hachimura, missed the final four games of the streak with a knee injury before returning to action against the Spurs.
If you told someone prior to opening day that the Wizards would make the playoffs, you would assume that would have been their starting lineup.
Fast forward to the present day and it has been a mix of the likes of Alex Len, Anthony Gill, Raul Neto and Isaac Bonga in the first unit.
Len was dropped by the struggling Toronto Raptors earlier this season, Neto had only started four games over the last four seasons before this stint, Gill is a 28-year-old rookie who hadn't appeared in an NBA game prior to this season and Bonga has been a developing project since he entered the league.
And yet, somehow, the Wizards just kept winning.
What Westbrook is doing right now cannot be understated.
He is arguably in the best stretch of his career since his MVP season in 2017, as he again leads the league with 11.0 assists per game while rounding out his triple-double averages with 21.8 points and 11.0 rebounds per contest.
If Washington can carry this momentum through the end of the season and into a Play-In spot, this version of Westbrook will be nightmare fuel for any opponent standing in his way.
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