The Wizards entered the competition in DC Tuesday night after ending a grueling six-game road trip, ready to play in front of home fans for the first time since December 12. They received a big burst of energy from those in attendance and brought out the best in everyone who took the court, beating the Sixers 116-111 and ending Philly’s eight-game winning streak.
For the first time all season, the Wizards had a clean pre-game injury report. That means Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. had every available player available. With a completely healthy roster, Unseld Jr. opted for an ultra-large starting XI and lined up for the second straight game with Monte Morris, Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma, Kristaps Porzingis and Daniel Gafford.
“I think the guys are just out there trying to get us back on track and winning games, so whatever that means,” Unseld Jr. said.
The big lineup was impressive right off the bat and a big reason the Wizards were able to hold a 15-point lead in the first half. Sixers superstar center Joel Embiid got his (26 in the first half), but having several big men on the floor made life difficult for the rest of the Sixers and helped the Wizards maintain control of the boards early on.
Despite Embiid’s 26 points, the Wizards took a 67-56 lead at halftime and held a 22-13 lead on the boards.
Another helpful aspect of the large lineup was how it allowed the casters to defend Embiid with physical strength while keeping Porzingis out of dire trouble. Embiid is one of the best players in the league when it comes to reaching the charity strip, and putting Porzingis in a position to bear the brunt of the foul troubles would have made life harder for the Wizards offense. The numbers support this strategy. Embiid came to the line 14 times on Tuesday night, while Porzingis caught just two fouls and was able to stay on the pitch for 35 minutes.
When asked what he particularly liked about having Gafford alongside him in the lineup to guard Embiid, Porzingis joked, “That I didn’t have to guard Embiid.” He continued, “It’s not an easy job. [Gibson] and [Gafford] had to use their fouls and try to be as physical with him as possible.”
After a nice first half, things got a little dicey for Washington. The Sixers put on some nice runs (including a 13-2 run in the third quarter) and kept them within striking distance throughout the fourth quarter.
With 2:30 left in the game, the Wizards lead was cut to a point just before Porzingis knocked down the biggest shot of the game, a clutch three-pointer over Tobias Harris’ outstretched arm, giving the Wizards a 4-point lead . The biggest defensive play of the game came a few possessions later, when Deni Avdija cleared a propelling Embiid with less than 30 seconds left and secured the Wizards victory.
Unfortunately for the Wizards, Beal went into the dressing room about four minutes into the game and didn’t return. Unseld Jr. said after the game that Beal experienced pain in his left hamstring. His status for Wednesday’s game against Phoenix will be determined after further evaluation.
The Wizards showed their depth Tuesday night with massive off-bench performances from all five guys who got minutes. The reserves totaled 43 points, led by Rui Hachimura’s 14 on 5-of-10 shots from the field. Corey Kispert contributed eight big points of his own, including a swing-changing four-point play in transition.
Taj Gibson, Delon Wright and Avdija each scored seven points on a combined 7-of-13 shooting from the field, but it was those three’s defensive efforts that made the biggest difference. Wright made three steals in 17 minutes. Gibson played physical defense on Embiid. And Avdija had the aforementioned streak on Embiid to put the Wizards in a position to win the game.
THE ALL-ROUND PERFORMANCE FROM KRISTAPS PORZINGIS
Porzingis played a balanced and efficient game. With Kuzma having a bad night offensively (14 points, 4/13 FG), the Wizards needed someone upfront to parry shots and Porzingis happily stepped forward. He posted a team-high 24 points on 7-of-15 shots from the field and 3-of-5 shots from deep, along with 10 rebounds and an assist. He also contributed well at the defensive end of the court, blocked three shots and grabbed two steals.
The Wizards have now won three of their last four games and will host the Suns in the second leg of a home game on Wednesday night.