2021 NBA Playoffs: For the Washington Wizards or Orlando Magic, it takes one good run to make it

The 8-seed in this year’s Eastern Conference was dead in the water.

They struggled through the early part of the season and it did not seem like their gambit to bring two stars together would pay off with a return to the postseason. The fact that it was a 72-game season added more urgency to the course of the season. There was always time running out as the league went on an all-out sprint to the end of the season.

There was no time to lose.

The Washington Wizards had to bring together a new major player in Russell Westbrook during a season when there was little practice time. They had to find a way to get everyone comfortable and get through this season.

It was not easy for the Wizards.

When the Orlando Magic rolled into Washington, D.C., early in the season and erased a 17-point deficit and dominated the team for two wins, the Washington Wizards were clearly in their early stages. Westbrook was still getting his feet wet, recovering from injury and trying to figure out how to make his game fit with this new team — and how they would fit around his unique talent.

The Magic were making a statement that a team like the Wizards would have to take the playoff spot from their cold, dead hands — and Markelle Fultz continued a string of great games in his hometown. It was still early in the season, but it was hard to envision what the Wizards would become.

Orlando, obviously, fell apart this season because of injuries after leaving Washington at 4-0 for the first time in franchise history. But the Wizards figured themselves out. They found their way to play.

And it coalesced in a magnificent run to the first round of the playoffs that ended in a five-game loss to the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers last week.

The Washington Wizards were dead in the water at 15 games under .500. But they coalesced around their two stars and went on a wild run to make the Playoffs.

If there is one thing the Wizards proved — and the Magic should implicitly know after their run to the playoffs in 2019 — is that it takes time for a team to coalesce and come together and that in the Eastern Conference, it takes only one super run to make the Playoffs and clear that relatively low bar.

The Wizards hit a low in their season on April 5 when they fell to 17-32 on the season. The Washington Wizards were only one-half game better than the Orlando Magic at that time and 3.5 games behind the Chicago Bulls for the final Play-In Tournament spot and 7.0 games behind the New York Knicks for the eighth spot they would ultimately finish in.

There is perhaps a universe where Orlando made the run Washington made. The Magic, after all, did that with a 22-9 run in the 2019 season. It really does take one big run to get things going.

The Wizards started this run to the postseason at the Magic’s expense with a 131-116 thrashing at the Amway Center. Washington would win 10 of the team’s next 12 games and finished the season 17-6 to make the playoffs at 34-38.

That is right, the Wizards recorded half of their wins this season in their final 23 games to make the playoffs.

During that time, Washington had the fifth-best net rating (+5.5 points per 100 possessions), the eighth-best offense (115.5 points per 100 possessions) and the seventh-best defense (110.0 points allowed per 100 possessions).

Russell Westbrook averaged 23.0 points per game, 13.5 rebounds per game and 13.8 assists per game while shooting 44.9-percent from the floor. Bradley Beal also hit his groove with 31.3 points per game on 37.4-percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Beal and Westbrook certainly needed some time to get themselves on the same page. But they became unleashed during this stretch and the Wizards really found their identity.

It is a far cry from the way the team played beforehand. In the first 49 games this season, the Wizards had the sixth-worst net rating (-5.1 points per 100 possessions), the fifth-worst defense (113.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) and even the sixth-worst offense in the league (108.1 points per 100 possessions).

Washington erased more than two-thirds of the season of terrible play with a sublime finish to the season.

There are stories like these all the time.

The Portland Trail Blazers typically seem to scuttle through the early part of the season before hitting the jets in January and February to establish themselves in the playoffs. The Magic themselves made that 22-9 run to get to 42-40 after sitting 11 games under .500 to make the playoffs in 2019.

Simply making the playoffs, especially in the Eastern Conference, is a fairly low bar. And what the league constantly displays is that treading water for half the season with a quarter of sublime play is enough to make the postseason.

It truly is akin to a race. A team just has to keep itself in the pack until it can make its move and jump ahead.

That was what the Magic were counting on in the 2020 season when they looked ahead to a softer part of the schedule just after the point the season shut down.

The New Orleans Pelicans in 2020 were also trying to survive an especially difficult first half of the season. Many believed with a healthy Zion Williamson, they were keyed to make a run for the final playoff spot and oust the Memphis Grizzlies from eighth in the West.

The pandemic killed any chance for these kinds of runs that the schedule and the team’s general play at the time were setting up to deliver.

Then again, the Phoenix Suns went 8-0 in the bubble, going from a team nobody thought should have even been at Disney to the story of the seeding round. The Suns ended up one game short of making the play-in game thanks to that run. And that enabled them to acquire Chris Paul and earn the second seed in this year’s Playoffs.

There is always one of those teams in the league that go on some unreal run to sneak into the playoffs. And in the Eastern Conference especially, it is hard for any team except for the very worst to believe they are completely out of it.

The Wizards obviously had two All-Star-level players waiting in the wings to ignite that run. But things were not working with them to that point. It still takes the team coming together, buying in and believing to make the kind of surprise run the Washington Wizards went on to make the playoffs — they finished eighth before defeating the Indiana Pacers in the second Play-In Tournament game to make the playoff field as the 8-seed.

If there is a formula for making the playoffs that a young team like the Magic can follow it is this notion that a team can come together, catch fire and rise up the standings quickly in the Eastern Conference.

Every team has a run in them. It is just about igniting that flame and harnessing that momentum when the time comes.

All it really does take is that one run of extended play to make it in.