Russell Westbrook was surprised he missed the shot. After all, the scenario unfolded for a perfect storybook ending: On his record-breaking night, the NBA’s new triple-double king got the ball in the final seconds, stormed down the court and could drain the go-ahead jumper for the win.
But when Westbrook pulled up and shot, the ball clanked off the rim.
“Man,” Westbrook said, shaking his head with a grin. “I did, I did (think it was good). Unfortunately, it didn’t go in.”
The miss resulted in a one-point loss Monday as the Wizards fell 125-124 to the Atlanta Hawks. It was also the Wizards’ latest nail-biter in a series of recent games that have come down to the final minutes. One game earlier, the Wizards pulled out an overtime win over the Indiana Pacers — a victory capped by a wild sequence that saw Westbrook hit the game-winning free throws and swat away the potential buzzer-beater.
Since April 12, Washington is 13-4 — and all four losses have been by three points or less. Three of those losses were by a point, with the other going to overtime.
The Wizards have gone to overtime five times this season — four of them coming within the last month.
Through all the ups and downs of the season, these Wizards happen to have a flair for the dramatic.
“We’ve got a competitive spirit,” coach Scott Brooks said, later adding, “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve had to make up a bunch of games. The schedule is not easy, but we’ve never used it — not one time, you guys have never heard me use it as an excuse. … That’s what I love about our team. We compete.”
On Monday, the Wizards battled back from a 19-point deficit. And they did so without star Bradley Beal, the team’s leading scorer who is out with a hamstring injury. Beal’s injury also prevented him from closing out Saturday’s win over the Pacers, but Westbrook and company rallied to secure the victory.
This season, the Wizards have had 37 “clutch” games, according to the NBA. That’s when the contest is within a five-point margin with five minutes remaining. Washington’s 37 clutch games ranks eighth in the league, and the team has gone 18-19 in those contests.
What’s more remarkable is that 19 of those 37 have come since the All-Star break, which happened in March. In that span, Washington has played a total of 35 games — meaning more than half (54%) of its contests have been close in the final five minutes.
In May, the splits are even more jarring. Five of the Wizards’ six games have been considered clutch. They lost by one to the Dallas Mavericks, beat the Pacers by 13, lost to the Bucks by 1, beat the Raptors by two in overtime, beat the Pacers by one in overtime and lost to the Hawks by one.
Only the Memphis Grizzlies, Brooklyn Nets, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans have had more games in the clutch since the All-Star break.
Center Robin Lopez said he thinks the close games can help — and are helping — the Wizards.
“I think it’s preparing us, I hope it’s preparing us,” Lopez said. “The playoffs are a different atmosphere. The playoffs are a different beast. But you need all the preparation you can get.”
The Wizards could be in store for a dramatic finish to the regular season, as well.
Monday’s loss dropped them to 10th in the Eastern Conference, and Washington’s play-in spot is still probably secure. The Wizards are 2½ games up on the 11th-place Chicago Bulls, entering Tuesday’s slate of games.
Washington has three games left: at Atlanta on Wednesday, host Cleveland on Friday and at Charlotte on Sunday. The last game against the Hornets could potentially play an important role for seeding purposes as the Wizards are only 1½ games back of Charlotte for eighth.
The NBA’s play-in tournament begins next week.
“We’ve been pretty good executing down the stretch,” Lopez said. “Luck is a factor sometimes. That’s the NBA. But we have to be better … earlier on. Not in the clutch, but earlier on.”
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