The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Wizards’ bench has been key to their rise. They will need it again to earn the No. 8 seed.

Anthony Gill had 12 crucial points in the Wizards' win Friday, which clinched their play-in berth. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Anthony Gill was surprised to hear it at first, his brow furrowing Friday after the Washington Wizards clinched their spot in the NBA’s inaugural play-in tournament. Scott Brooks’s early-season assessment of Gill had been relayed again. After a beat, the forward remembered.

“Now that you mention it, Coach did say something to me before last game,” Gill said, a grin spreading across his face. “He said he thought I was trash at the beginning of the season. I’m glad he doesn’t think that now.”

Brooks’s doubt could be forgiven. At the season’s nadir April 5, Washington was 17-32, had endured seven players testing positive for the coronavirus in January and had paused its season for nearly two weeks as a result. Gill, a 28-year-old NBA rookie who spent his post-college years in the EuroLeague, had averaged 1.7 rebounds and 0.9 points in scarce minutes over just 15 games.

But after scoring 12 critical — and critically timed — points in the Wizards’ win Friday, Gill has grown to epitomize the type of role player who has helped resuscitate Washington, which still leans on Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal most of all.

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The Wizards (33-38) control their own destiny heading into Sunday’s final game of the season, needing a win over the visiting Charlotte Hornets (33-38) to clinch eighth place in the Eastern Conference. They may have to do so without three guards: Beal is questionable after missing three games with a left hamstring strain, Raul Neto is questionable with a left hamstring sprain after missing Friday’s game, and Garrison Mathews is probable with a right wrist sprain.

But if the Wizards finish in eighth, their path to the playoffs smooths considerably. The winner of the 7-vs.-8 matchup Tuesday — the Boston Celtics have clinched the No. 7 seed and will host the game — claims the seventh seed in the playoffs. The loser plays the winner of the 9-vs.-10 matchup for the eighth seed.

“I’ll be honest,” Brooks said. “I even talked to him a couple of days ago. I said, ‘Your first month, I thought I was better than you.’ There were times that he struggled, but I’ll tell you what: He just kept playing. And then it starts to grow on you, and you see it every day. It’s not fake. That guy is cheering his teammates on. He’s in every huddle. He locks in to every play and every timeout just in case I might make a sub after the huddle breaks — and then he started playing better in practice. And then I threw him in a game …”

And then? Then Gill joined the ranks of the Wizards’ eclectic supporting cast in earnest, which is to say he started performing well at just the right times, doing exactly the job he was hired to do. In his past five games, as the Wizards have made their final late-season push, Gill has averaged 9.2 points, 2.2 rebounds, one assist and one steal in 16.3 minutes.

Washington has been patching cracks in the walls with gum all season, and the house is still upright because of players such as Gill, Mathews, center Robin Lopez and trade-deadline pickup Daniel Gafford — all of whom, except Gafford, have floated in and out of the starting lineup.

Westbrook’s surge in the second half of the season is undeniably the catalyst that pushed the Wizards into the playoff mix — he is averaging 22.2 points and career highs in rebounds (11.5) and assists (11.8) at 32. Beal’s scoring — 31.4 points per game — has ballasted the team. If Beal is healthy, Washington’s backcourt will be what makes it dangerous in the single-elimination format of the play-in tournament.

But the Wizards got to this point — and feel confident heading into the play-in tournament — because of their role players. Washington has used 29 starting lineups, with plenty more funky combinations rolled out during games. Brooks used Westbrook alongside three forwards — Gill, Davis Bertans and Rui Hachimura — and Lopez on Friday.

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“I’ve been doing that all year. I’ve just been thinking out of the box all year, playing three centers, playing three point guards,” Brooks said. “You just do what you can and you don’t make an excuse and you figure out ways to stay competitive. … We got two really high-level players, both all-NBA players, and then we’ve got really a lot of good role players that understand what they do.”

Brooks cited his team’s mental toughness as the most crucial element to its turnaround, though the Wizards’ hot streak in April coincided with the roster’s return to health. The coach was referring to his players’ ability to stay focused after the coronavirus pause forced an even more condensed schedule in the second half of the season — “I’ve been in the league a long time, and when you’re 15 games under .500, you’re doing the — ‘Okay, where are we going for vacation?’ ” Brooks said.

Gill, however, noted that Brooks’s regular experimentation created the mental toughness he prizes among role players.

“The biggest thing for this team is that when everybody’s had their number called, they’ve stepped up,” Gill said. “From top to bottom — there’s guys on our team that will go a couple months without playing, then when they get into the game, it’s go time. And they step in and don’t miss a beat. That’s huge for us because we have a lot of depth going into the postseason.”