The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After disappearing in Boston, the Wizards need to rekindle their magic against Indiana

Bradley Beal leaves the court after Tuesday’s 118-100 loss in Boston. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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Because Washington always has been a fervent grass-roots basketball town, there has been a pent-up passion to get behind the Wizards for more than 40 years, no matter what objective facts may advise.

With deep fanatic roots in high schools in D.C. and almost every nearby Maryland and Virginia county, plus about a dozen college hoops teams, including three with national titles and two others that have made Final Fours, basketball has an intensely personal grip on a high ratio of sports fans who have lived in this area for any length of time.

We unite around winners, especially ones that win three Super Bowls or a Stanley Cup or World Series. But we also wait. For decades, ever since the glory 1970s, we wait for the Return while telling younger generations that the Wizards, nee Bullets, don’t always disappoint us.

That is why, on Thursday night when the Wizards play Indiana for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, an unreasonably large number of DMV folks will hope for a representative showing, worthy of the team’s play over the past six weeks, despite Tuesday’s AWOL loss in Boston with the seventh seed at stake.

Just show up, okay?

The Wizards need more from Davis Bertans — a lot more

If there’s a hoop 10 feet in the air and the ball bounces, the D.C. region knows exactly what it is watching. It knows how excellent this team was on its season-closing 17-6 run and how frozen-by-the-moment it looked as it hit its first real pressure game.

Yes, Boston’s Jayson Tatum scored 50 points. But that game was lost by the tight, flat Wizards every bit as much as it was won by the undermanned but clutch Celtics.

A win over the Pacers, who got back one 20-point scorer in Malcolm Brogdon but lost another after Caris LeVert entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols, would buy the Wizards a meeting with No. 1 seed Philadelphia.

Regardless of outcome, long — and I mean l-o-n-g — suffering Wizards fans would love to see the great, fierce Russell Westbrook, who was so tame and lifeless in Boston; the elegant, explosive Bradley Beal; and the new three-headed center take their mega-upset shot at Joel Embiid and Co.

After going 3-0 against Washington during the regular season, maybe Philadelphia would be overconfident. The last time they met, Moritz Wagner, Deni Avdija and Garrison Mathews got lots of minutes. Daniel Gafford hadn’t arrived, and Ish Smith wasn’t available. That team is gone.

How will the Wizards be measured? After such a boring-yet-exhausting 72-game pandemic regular season, how much grit can they summon at home against Indiana, just for a chance to display their best selves in a 76ers series they are unlikely to win?

The Wizards have played so well recently and have shown so many still-secret weapons that it would be a shame if back-to-back losses erased the chance to give a good account of themselves as freewheeling underdogs.

Especially Westbrook.

The new triple-double king was so emotionally blank and eventually demoralized that Shaquille O’Neal said on national TV: “Great players can never [allow themselves to] have two bad games in a row. … Westbrook wasn’t there tonight. Facial expressions were not there. Energy wasn’t there.”

Can’t happen again. Probably won’t. The Wizards are 3-0 against the Pacers this season. Westbrook averaged 27.3 points, 20 assists and 18 rebounds — almost a triple-20 — in those games.

Commentators Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith speculated that Westbrook might have been sick, injured or something — anything — to explain his out-of-character play and the way he headed to the locker room alone with several (real-time) minutes left in the game, head down and dejected.

Or maybe Coach Brad Stevens and the Celtics got in his head by hunting charging fouls when he (or Beal) drove and putting taller defenders on the 6-foot-3 Westbrook at the perimeter to make his shots and his passes more difficult against longer wingspans.

Wizards wobble in the play-in game, lose to Celtics and must try to land the eighth seed

No one has figured out how to defend Westbrook in a decade. So while Stevens out-coached Scott Brooks with halftime adjustments that helped a 17-2 Boston run to open the third quarter, there’s no reason to think he has invented a Stop Russ game plan for the Pacers.

What’s most worrisome about the loss was the Wizards’ team-wide funk, with only Ish Smith (17 points) showing poise. After weeks of nothing-to-lose swagger as they tried to save what had been a 17-32 season, Westbrook and Beal each had just one basket deep in the second quarter.

Normally efficient Alex Len, a key in the center trio that averaged 25.7 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in the 23-game run, began the game with wild passes and wild shots, too. Steal of the year Gafford quickly got suckered into three fouls and went to the bench. Three-point specialist Davis Bertans couldn’t have hit the Boston Harbor from a boat.

Note that the Celtics, despite Tatum’s brilliance, shot a poor 39.6 percent from the field, their lowest in any win this year. Yet, without injured 24.7-point-per-game scorer Jaylen Brown and two others dinged during the game, Boston romped.

Shall we go on? No, we shall go forward.

If the Wizards duplicate that effort Thursday, with 40-for-92 shooting, including 3 for 21 on threes, they won’t beat anyone. Why? Because their late-season team identity was offensive efficiency in many forms — the opposite of that mess in TD Garden.

How Russell Westbrook became the NBA’s triple-double king

Perhaps the season-closing form was just a mirage. But let’s assume — nothing else is fun at this moment, and we can always revert to moping all summer — that the recent 17-6 run held some meaning.

Len, Gafford and Robin Lopez had a combined field goal percentage over .651, which would have been No. 2 in the NBA if one player had amassed it over a full season. On three-pointers, Bertans (.405), Raul Neto (.480), Ish Smith (.429) and Beal (.374) were above the NBA season average of .367.

With centers dunking, Westbrook and Beal slashing, Rui Hachimura filling a lane on the fast break and four options behind the arc, the Wizards were an offensive menace, surpassing 120 points in 14 of those 23 games. The Wizards laid 154 on the Pacers this month, then won their next meeting, 133-132 in overtime.

Neither team could guard the other. Now the Pacers have the 6-foot-5 Brogdon back from injury to join with 6-foot-11 Domantas Sabonis, an artist who plays in waltz time, although losing the kinetic LeVert deprives them of their trio of 20-point scorers.

For the Wizards, what matters, of course, is simply whether they win. For those who watch them, waiting and hoping, and who have enjoyed them so much recently, it also matters whether they show up — just show up — resembling the team of the previous six weeks and not the lifeless zombies of Tuesday night.