For months, the 2020-21 season looked like it would be a lost one for the Washington Wizards. There were injuries early on, rumors swirling about a Bradley Beal trade and eventually, COVID-19-related absences that took the Wizards off the floor for nearly two weeks.
The Wizards were 17-32 on the morning of April 7. That's when ESPN's Basketball Power Index gave them just a 4% chance of even making the play-in tournament.
However, things started to change, as the Wizards won 17 of their final 23 games, culminating in a 115-110 come-from-behind win over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday to lock up the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament.
"We went through those rough periods we had and we came out stronger for it," said Wizards center Robin Lopez, who finished with 18 points Sunday.
Now, a team that didn't look like it had a viable chance to even make the play-in has two chances to try to secure a spot in the playoffs.
It looked bleak on Sunday as Charlotte jumped out to a 16-point lead in the first half before the Wizards wrestled the game away late.
"This game kind of mimicked our season," Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. "A lot of crazy things happened to us. We were getting punched left and right and we just somehow kept battling and coming up with a play here and a play there. They had us on the ropes early. They had us on the ropes [in the] middle of the game. They had us on the ropes toward the end.
"But we just kept getting up and fighting for one another. I've been talking about brotherhood for a while now. This group gives a really cool definition of brotherhood, and I can see it firsthand."
The Wizards finished off the Hornets even thought leading scorer Beal didn't look like himself. Beal, who ended the season second in the scoring race to Golden State's Stephen Curry, finished with 25 points but was 8-of-27 from the field and 3-of-11 from deep.
He had missed the previous three games with a hamstring strain and was clearly laboring through the first half.
Brooks said he was preparing not to play Beal, but roughly 30 minutes before tip, Beal told him he wanted to go and Brooks and the medical staff carried out their plan to monitor Beal throughout the game.
"I cannot say enough about Brad's toughness," Brooks said. "He is so skilled and athletic, but the four years I've been here, there's not a lot of guys who have his mental toughness, his focus and his determination. He's been put in very difficult positions over the last three years because of injuries and he had to lead our group by himself. Now he has a partner."
That partner is the NBA's all-time leader in triple-doubles, Russell Westbrook, who added another one against the Hornets with 23 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists.
Westbrook finished the season averaging 22.7 points, 11.7 assists and 11.5 rebounds per game. It's the fourth time he has averaged a triple-double for the season as he posted career highs in assists and rebounds per game. He also locked up his third season assist crown.
"Like I said all season long, I've always had the utmost confidence in everybody in the locker room," Westbrook said. "Always try to find ways to weather the storm. You gotta give credit to our coach because he's done an amazing job of making adjustments on the fly. The players always get the recognition but Scotty has done a hell of a job of being consistent and finding ways to make us better along with the coaching staff. We've had a lot of guys step up."
Washington will take on Boston in the play-in tournament's 7-versus-8 game on Tuesday night. The winner will advance to the playoffs as the seventh seed while the loser will face the winner of the Indiana-Charlotte contest on Thursday to see who makes the playoffs as the eighth seed.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Wizards are looking to become the first team since the 1996-97 Phoenix Suns to be 15 games below .500 at any point in the season and still make the playoffs.