The Boston Celtics ended the regular season in a deep slump, while the Washington Wizards soared to the finish line.
Their paths will converge Tuesday night when the Celtics host the Wizards in the play-in round. The winner will land the No. 7 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs, while the loser will get another attempt to play their way in on Thursday night.
“The play-in games are going to be exciting for fans and it puts an added weight and added importance on that week,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “And then once you get into the playoffs and teams dial into each other and prepare for each other, you see everybody’s level rise.”
The Celtics (36-36), who finished seventh in the Eastern Conference, need to raise their level now as they struggled down the stretch with five losses in six games and nine of their past 13.
They also lost standout guard Jaylen Brown (wrist) for the rest of the season. He averaged 24.7 points per game and losing Brown’s firepower hurts even more when the opponent trots out Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook as the starting backcourt.
Washington (34-38), which is in the eighth position, was red-hot down the stretch with 17 wins in its past 23 games. Westbrook went into high-level triple-double mode and finished with 38 on the season and 184 for his career, eclipsing Oscar Robertson’s long-held record of 181.
Beal finished second in the NBA in scoring at 31.3 points per game but is less than full strength due to a strained left hamstring that caused him to miss three games before he returned Sunday and scored 25 points in a 115-110 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
“There’s no setbacks, which is good,” Beal said. “I didn’t injure it any worse than what it was. Obviously, it still probably won’t be 100 percent. It is just a matter of managing it as best I can.”
Westbrook recorded triple-doubles in 20 of his past 24 appearances and his first season of teaming up with Beal has been a big success. He averaged a triple-double for the fourth time in the past five seasons, recording an NBA-leading 11.7 assists to go with 22.2 points and a career-high 11.5 rebounds.
After having to yield to James Harden last season with the Houston Rockets, Westbrook has been free to play the game his way under Washington coach Scott Brooks, who was previously his coach in Oklahoma City.
“You gotta give credit to our coach because he’s done an amazing job of making adjustments on the fly,” Westbrook said of Brooks. “The players always get the recognition, but Scotty has done a hell of a job of being consistent and finding ways to make us better along with the coaching staff.”
There will certainly be the eyes on the Boston coach as well as Stevens’ club took a step back this season after losing in the Eastern Conference finals in three of the past four seasons.
This time, the Celtics are still trying to make it into the field and multiple players have been ailing down the stretch, including star forward Jayson Tatum (ankle).
Tatum isn’t worried about the injury for Tuesday, but he understands his club needs to step up its performance.
“It’s been such an up-and-down season,” said Tatum, who averages 26.4 points per game. “Obviously, the last couple of games haven’t gone our way.”
Boston won two of the three regular-season meetings — both wins coming at home and the loss occurring at Washington. Tatum averaged 31.5 points in the victories but scored just six points in the loss.
Beal averaged 40.7 points with a high of 46, while Westbrook didn’t record a single triple-double in the three meetings.
–Field Level Media