The Washington Wizards were discussing a lack of energy after some bout, or maybe it was during a game, at which point one player helpfully reminded the team, “Don’t get tired.” Westbrook took the opportunity to butt in.
“ ‘Don’t get tired?’ he says. ‘No — don’t say the word,’ ” Hachimura said in a recent phone interview. “He always tells me, ‘We never get tired.’ It’s actually — it’s crazy. It’s different. For him to be like that, it really helps the team bring the energy. Last year, we didn’t have that. I’ve never seen a person like that, of course.”
When the eighth-seeded Wizards visit Philadelphia to play the top-seeded 76ers to begin the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs Sunday, they’ll do so with an edge they haven’t had since Bradley Beal and John Wall were a fearsome backcourt at the height of their powers in 2017 and 2018.
Make no mistake, these Wizards can be scary — perhaps even to mighty Philadelphia, which has the second-best defensive rating in the league.
They have the second-leading scorer in the NBA in Beal, a point guard in Westbrook who ended the regular season averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 11.7 assists, and the confidence after losing consecutive games just once since April 5.
But Washington’s newfound bite isn’t just because Beal is now paired with Westbrook, whose ball dominance can lift the Wizards to wins but also makes room for Beal’s scoring tirades when appropriate.
Washington feels different, according to its players and coaches, because Westbrook has helped whip the team into playing tougher and with more consistent intensity. Ask around, and the 32-year-old point guard’s name comes up as a foundational part of nearly every positive aspect about this year’s Wizards.
The team chemistry that helped them survive a 17-32 start was forged by long January days slogging through positive coronavirus test after positive test — the team had seven in all. But the seed of open communication was planted at practice in December, Hachimura said.
“He was always yelling at me, but it was good. Because for me, it was really hard to bring energy,” Hachimura said. “I was still kind of in my rookie year; I was trying to get to know everybody because there were a lot of new guys. From the beginning, he would just come out to practice like — I don’t know what he was saying, but he was always shouting. It actually made it easy to get along with him and he made it easier for the team, for us to get along. Because he’s so vocal, I guess that’s what it is. You talk about everything.”
Hachimura, who turned 23 in February, also had never seen a player raise his hand to speak in team meetings as often as Westbrook does. The point guard and Coach Scott Brooks share a deep, trusting bond that stretches back 12 years to their time in Oklahoma City, but still, Hachimura couldn’t believe how easy it was for a player and a coach to establish a dialogue.
“He’s straight up,” Hachimura said. “So realizing you can be like that, it helps.”
While Westbrook helped force the team into speaking more frankly, Brooks also wanted the Wizards’ younger players to learn from the nonverbal part of his game. Westbrook is famous for his meticulous preparation on game days, during which he is so focused that family members know not to speak to him. It might have been a trying year for the Westbrooks — before their two-day break ahead of Game 1, Washington hadn’t had two consecutive days without a game since late March.
This year, the league’s coronavirus protocols meant the entire team could not be in the same locker room at the same time for much of the season. Players used two separate spaces and had dedicated times.
Partway through the season, the Wizards switched who got to be in the locker room with Westbrook ahead of games so that younger players could see how he prepared.
“He brings that professionalism, that excellence about doing your job every day and don’t make excuses,” Brooks said Thursday. “You play through everything, within reason, but you always commit to the game. … I think he brings that to our young guys. You know, some of our veteran guys, they already have their foundation, [and] we can tweak it. But the young guys, what is he going to bring to them? In 10 years, they’re going to be thankful they had Russell for the first four, five years of their career.”
Westbrook’s metronomic preparation is inseparable from his mental strength, which his teammates say never wavers.
That’s what Beal said he absorbed most from Westbrook throughout the year. The 27-year-old credits Westbrook with helping him grow as a leader. Last week, Beal detailed the 48-hour internal debate he had about playing in the regular season finale with a strained left hamstring. The guard ultimately decided to play because this year he came to believe it was important for his teammates to see him on the floor.
“It took a while for me to realize how important that part of the game is, being available for your team,” Beal said. “Being there, encouragement, great body language — all of that plays a factor into being a good leader.”
It wasn’t hard to draw a connection, though he didn’t directly tie the two himself, between Beal’s realization and what he learned from Westbrook this year.
“He always wants to win. And it may come off as nasty and ugly sometimes, but that’s him,” Beal said of Westbrook. “… But he doesn’t demand something out of anybody else that he doesn’t expect out of himself, and I respect that. For him to do that night in and night out on a consistent basis, it propelled me. It propelled my game. Because I’ve seen times where he’s hurt … but he’s out there, he’s competing, he’s still going hard and he’s still getting triple-doubles, he’s still leading, he’s still talking to his teammates. So it’s very motivational, in a lot of ways, to see a man be able to channel that type of energy night in and night out.”
The night the Wizards clinched the eighth seed, Brooks recalled a specific example of the type of incessant willpower to which Beal referred. Like Hachimura, he couldn’t remember the specific timing, just that Westbrook told the team, in a midseason meeting, that he wasn’t going through the hardships of this season without making the playoffs at the end.
“Everybody was doubting us on the outside, and we had to figure out a way to knuckle up and, you know, make the playoffs,” Westbrook said Thursday with a shrug. “Simple as that. I didn’t care what happened the previous games; moving forward we had to figure ourselves out, look ourselves in the mirror. I start with myself, and I made it clear to the guys that — we will make it.”