Westbrook debuts for Wizards in win over Detroit

THE WASHINGTON POST – The Washington Wizards’ goal for their preseason finale on Saturday night at Capital One Arena was to establish a presence early. There are few better shortcuts for doing that than including Russell Westbrook in the starting lineup.

Westbrook made his debut with the Wizards in a 99-96 win over the Detroit Pistons that lived up to Washington’s goal. From the moment the nine-time all-star stood on the court waiting for tip-off, pumping his fists in circles and pointing at some of the few team employees allowed at court level amid restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Wizards had a different energy. Three-point specialist Davis Bertans also made his first preseason appearance, and Bradley Beal took the court for his second exhibition, reuniting Washington’s three biggest scoring threats. Unsurprisingly, the trio made a difference.

Here are five takeaways from the game as the Wizards turn their attention to Wednesday night’s regular season opener at Philadelphia:

WESTBROOK’S FRESH START

The 32-year-old point guard looked just as fresh as Coach Scott Brooks promised he would during his first game in a number four Wizards uniform. Westbrook played just over 17 minutes in the first half and finished with eight points on four-for-10 shooting, seven rebounds and three assists – and his assists, in particular, don’t illustrate how many clever dishes he had on shots that simply didn’t fall. Westbrook’s passing skills were on full display as he leaned into his facilitator side, especially early.

Washington Wizards Russell Westbrook passes the ball between Detroit Pistons’ Mason Plumlee and Killian Hayes during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game in Washington. PHOTO: AP

He and Beal both played together and had their minutes staggered, with Beal staying on the court with the second unit to play alongside Bertans, who came off the bench. Beal continued playing into the second half and went more than 26 minutes. He finished with 15 points on 7-for-15 shooting and added five assists.

A FORCEFUL FIRST HALF

Westbrook and Beal started alongside Deni Avdija, Thomas Bryant and Anthony Gill, who was filling in for Rui Hachimura as the forward missed his second straight preseason game with eye irritation.

With everyone playing their true positions – unlike on Thursday, when Brooks started backup center Moe Wagner alongside Bryant – Washington’s spacing issues from the first two preseason games all but melted away, and the ball moved much more freely. The Wizards shot 49 per cent from the field in the half and after a tight first quarter built a 16-point lead in the second, during which Detroit never led.

It also helped that the Pistons had to account for more shooters this time around. Bertans didn’t have a flashy preseason debut – one long three-pointer was his only bucket – but he did take pressure off everyone else. Bryant certainly felt the difference with more open floor in front of him; he scored a team-high 22 points.

PLENTY OF POINT GUARDS

Before Saturday’s game, Brooks pointed to third-string point guard Raul Neto as one of the players who has stood out most since training camp began nearly two weeks ago. The six-foot-one Brazilian filled in as the starting point guard during the first two preseason games so Ish Smith could work with the second unit, as he will during the season, but Neto got plenty of shine on Saturday, even with Westbrook back.

Brooks played Westbrook, Smith and Neto together in a stretch that bridged the first and second quarters and produced easily some of the most fun basketball – and likely the fastest – the Wizards have played in some time. The point-guard-heavy group, which also included Troy Brown and Bertans at different points, outscored Detroit 18-8 while on the court together. Smith and Westbrook looked as though they enjoyed flying up and down the court together, and they made a surprisingly natural pairing. The two go way back – graduated high school the same year and were in the same college recruiting class.