Divergent paths lead Celtics and Wizards to play-in match
BOSTON (AP) – The Eastern Conference play-in game between the No.7 seeded Celtics and No.8 Wizards is a teams game that ended the regular season on divergent paths.
Washington opened season 3-12 and was on hiatus for two weeks in January due to coronavirus concerns before coming together to end season 17-6.
Boston has reached the end of its schedule, following a season-best six-game winning streak, losing 10 of its last 15 games.
Along the way, the Celtics faced a nine-game acquisition absence from Evan Fournier after contracting COVID-19 and losing Jaylen Brown for the season following wrist surgery..
It’s not exactly the expected recall of a team that just made a conference final in the Florida bubble last season.
“Obviously it’s a place we didn’t expect to be, but here we are. So we have to face it and manage what lies ahead, ”Celtics goalkeeper Marcus Smart said. “It’s 0-0. Everyone has the opportunity to start over. … We have to go out there and enjoy it.
Wizards playmaker Russell Westbrook said he was also living in the moment.
“We’ve struggled so hard to get here,” said Westbrook, who was selected as the Eastern Conference Player of the Month on Monday after averaging 26.3 points, 16.1 assists and 13.8 rebounds per match. “No one thought we would be there. And that’s only from here.
If the roads that have led here have varied, the stakes are simple.
Tuesday night’s winner will make the playoffs as the No.7 seed and secure a first-round game with second-seed Brooklyn.
The loser will face the winner of Tuesday’s other pair of play-ins between No.10 Charlotte and No.9 Indiana for the eighth seed and a first round match with the seed of the l ‘East, Philadelphia.
Boston is 2-1 against the Wizards this season, but the teams haven’t met since February 28.
That doesn’t change the fact that the shorthanded Celtics need to find a way to contain not only Westbrook but also All-Star Bradley Beal, who is averaging 41 points per game in their three encounters.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks said he believes the end of the regular season has put his team in the right frame of mind.
“These last X-numbers of games have been like playoff games,” said Brooks. “It prepares you.”
Washington enters on a swing on Tuesday despite coronavirus issues and various injuries, including two lost starters for the season to center Thomas Bryant and first-round pick Deni Avdija.
But wizarding stars have stepped up when needed. Beal scored 25 points in her 115-110 regular season final win over Charlotte on Sunday to lock in eighth place in the standings. He was active for the first time after being absent for three games with a strained left hamstring and battled through pain in the victory.
Brooks said it matched the tenacity Beal has displayed in recent seasons, which was boosted by the addition of Westbrook in the offseason.
“We can’t really show what started or how we ended up doing this great little race, but it clicked at the right time,” said Beal.
Brown isn’t the Celtics’ only injury issue.
All-Star Jayson Tatum (left ankle impingement), Tristan Thompson (left pectoral strain), Kemba Walker (left cervical nerve irritation), Fournier (right knee hyperflexion), Smart (right calf contusion) and Robert Williams (toe turf) all missed the final.
But coach Brad Stevens said he remains optimistic except Williams – a game-time decision – will be available.
A key question for the Wizards is how Beal will feel on Tuesday and beyond.
He was out of rhythm early in Sunday’s win and missed his first six shots; he shot 2 for 11 and had five points at halftime. But he helped lead the Wizards to victory, scoring 20 points after the break.
“I kind of made the decision to play. Probably one that I shouldn’t have, ”Beal said on Monday, but added,“ I feel great. I’m not as sore as I thought I was. I’m not as beaten as I thought.
Brooks is in the final season of a five-year, $ 35 million contract and there has been speculation whether or not he will return.
When asked about Brooks’ future last week, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis essentially deflected the question by saying, “We’ll see what happens.”
Westbrook, who also played for Brooks with the Oklahoma City Thunder early in his career, has made it clear he’s a fan.
“The players have a lot of credit because we’re on the floor. But behind the scenes Scotty is one hell of a trainer, ”Westbrook said. “If it wasn’t for him… a lot of that stuff wouldn’t even happen.”
AP Sports editor Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.
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