But Lopez was locked up. So Westbrook opted to do the job himself instead, spotting up for a three-pointer that swished through the net. On Washington’s next possession, backup point guard Ish Smith — 32 years old, just like Westbrook, and equally prepared for the moment — cut through a cluster of three defenders for a driving layup that gave the Wizards their first lead since the opening minutes.
Washington held on from there, coming back from multiple double-digit deficits for a 115-110 win over the visiting Charlotte Hornets that clinched eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards (34-38) will play the seventh-place Celtics (36-36) in Boston on Tuesday in the play-in tournament for the East’s No. 7 seed in the playoffs.
Should it lose Tuesday at TD Garden, Washington will have one more chance to make the playoffs. The loser of that matchup will play Thursday against the winner of Tuesday’s game between the 10th-place Hornets (33-39) and ninth-place Indiana Pacers (34-38) for the East’s No. 8 seed. If needed, the Wizards would host Thursday’s game at Capital One Arena, which was so loud and held a crowd so engaged that it sounded as if it were hosting a playoff game Sunday.
“Nobody believed that we would be here,” Westbrook said. “It’s only up from here.”
Westbrook wasn’t exaggerating about the improbability of the Wizards’ appearance in the play-in event. Under his and Bradley Beal’s leadership, they turned in the most impressive turnaround in the NBA this season, overcoming seven players testing positive for the coronavirus in January and winning 17 of their final 23 games to get the opportunity to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
After Smith’s layup put the Wizards up two Sunday, he came through again with a driving floater to give them a 113-110 lead with 1:36 left. Washington led by the same margin when Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham missed a three-pointer with 13.2 seconds left; a hobbled Beal grabbed the rebound and iced the game at the free throw line.
That Beal would end the afternoon leading his team with 25 points seemed unlikely, at best, in the first quarter. The guard took the court Sunday after missing the Wizards’ previous three games with a strained left hamstring that clearly still was bothering him early — he limped, grimaced and could not run back on defense for much of the first half. He finished 8 for 27 from the field, far from his best but enough to complete the job.
“I say it all the time: He chews nails for breakfast,” Coach Scott Brooks said.
Even Brooks thought Beal, who was not made available to reporters after the game, would not be able to play Sunday; the coach prepared for a lineup without his star guard until Beal told him 30 minutes before tip-off that he was going to play.
Brooks attempted to manage Beal’s minutes in the first half, but he was given the green light from the team’s medical staff to set him free in the second. Beal played 20:58 of his 34:37 after halftime.
“One thing I know about Brad: I don’t look at him when I take him out of games, because I know he’s angry and he’s angry at me because he wants to play,” Brooks said. “... I cannot say enough about Brad’s toughness. He obviously is so skilled and athletic, but the [five] years I’ve been here, there’s not a lot of guys that have his mental toughness and his focus and his determination. He’s been put under a very, very difficult position with our injuries the last three years, and he had to really lead our group by himself. Now he has a partner. That showed tonight.”
Westbrook supported him with 23 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. Lopez added 18 points and six rebounds. Smith had 14 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in his finest performance of the year. Forward Rui Hachimura added 16 points playing alongside Davis Bertans (11) in the starting lineup with guard Raul Neto out with a strained left hamstring.
Guard Terry Rozier led seven Hornets players in double figures with 22 points.
After giving up a 16-point, first-quarter lead, the Hornets scored in bursts. Westbrook, Smith and Beal’s onslaught finally stuck in the fourth quarter, thanks in part to Smith and Westbrook collapsing Charlotte’s defense with drives, leaving Beal wide open on the perimeter. The injured guard had 13 points in the quarter.
“This game kind of mimicked our season. A lot of things — a lot of crazy things — happened to us,” Brooks said. “We were getting punched left and right and 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 middle of the game. They had us on the ropes towards the end. But we just kept getting up and fighting for one another.”
After the final buzzer, Westbrook embraced his backcourt mate and thanked him.
“It’s a good feeling, just for myself with Brad, fighting through what he’s going through at the moment and going out and laying it on the line,” Westbrook said. “You appreciate guys like him. You don’t take his talent, his [mentality], anything for granted, because he wants to win and he wants to win bad and will do anything to kind of help his team out. That moment was just to let him know that I appreciated him since being here. We fought through so much to get here now.”