From there, Atlanta closed its comeback at the free throw line, beating the Wizards, 120-116, and clinching its spot in the playoffs.
Washington (32-38) now must beat either the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday or the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday to ensure its spot in next week’s play-in tournament, the league’s portal to the playoffs this year. It sits 1½ games behind the ninth-place Indiana Pacers and eighth-place Hornets and 2½ games ahead of the 11th-place Chicago Bulls for the final spot.
“We’re pissed off, as we should be,” Wizards forward Davis Bertans said. “We want to win games. These two were important for us to get closer to that eight spot, having a better chance at the playoffs. As natural as it is, it’s a good way to react to losses. It’s going to help us for the next games.”
Westbrook may not have to lead the team alone by that point. Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said before Wednesday’s game that Beal looked to be walking noticeably better after injuring his hamstring against the Pacers on Saturday in Indianapolis. He is set to be reevaluated Friday after missing two games this week.
But Beal’s absence may not be Washington’s biggest hurdle as it looks toward the play-in event. For the lower-seeded teams, the tournament is a series of single-elimination games, after all, and the Wizards have been living and dying in the final minutes of games lately.
Their past five defeats, beginning with an April 26 overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs, have been by a combined 10 points. Three of the losses have been one-point games. Washington pulled off some tight wins in the same span, including back-to-back overtime victories over the Toronto Raptors and Pacers, but the heartbreaking losses have been more common.
“We need to play better fourth quarters,” Brooks said. “We seem to have a couple of stretches in a couple of quarters, whether I can do a better job of rotations — those are things that I will critique myself, and my staff will go back and try to figure out ways to get more consistent minutes on both ends of the floor.”
Brooks’s center rotation was called into question Wednesday.
With 10 points in the third quarter, backup center Daniel Gafford pitched his case as one of the Wizards’ biggest X-factors, particularly with starting forward Rui Hachimura (11 points, six rebounds) not playing up to par. Gafford totaled 16 points in his 17 minutes, throwing down dunks and infusing Washington with energy off the bench.
He checked out with 7:13 to play, by which point the Hawks had whittled the Wizards’ 13-point lead to three thanks to back-to-back three-pointers from Bogdan Bogdanovic and Collins late in the third quarter.
The Wizards cranked their lead back up to seven midway through the fourth quarter with piecemeal jumpers and layups, but they were missing the type of splashy plays that Bogdanovic and Collins had to help them grab hold for good.
Trae Young made it a one-point game at the free throw line with 3:52 to go, and Collins gave the Hawks (39-31) the lead a few possessions later, sending the Wizards toward their first back-to-back losses since a four-game losing streak March 30 to April 5.
“I made a decision,” Brooks said when asked about the center rotation. “[Gafford] played a long stretch. I thought he needed a break, and then I stayed with [starter Alex Len]. I thought we needed his length. But hindsight, probably could have made a change. But like I said, that’s why you have a team. Everybody has a chance to step up. We got three pretty good centers. [Point guard] Raul [Neto] didn’t play much tonight. You could argue for him, too.”
After a tight first half that ended with the Wizards ahead 59-56, Washington crept ahead at the start of the third quarter with a layup from Len and a pair of jumpers from Neto. The Wizards expanded their lead when Bertans hit a three with under six minutes left in the quarter to kick off a seven-point run.
It might have been understandable had Westbrook slowed his motor just a tick after breaking Oscar Robertson’s career triple-double record Monday in the same arena, but Westbrook has never seemed capable of that. Instead of basking in his achievement, he racked up a season-best 25 points before halftime and also had four rebounds and eight assists before the break.
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