The Wizards’ first victory in 11 games, a 113-110 win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, was possible because they finally capitalized on their opportunities — and turned in a 15-0 run in the closing minutes.
For a while, it appeared it might be another letdown for Washington (12-20) after its 17-point third-quarter lead melted away with a 12-0 run by Phoenix (19-13) that bridged the third and fourth quarters. But it had been 43 days since the Wizards’ previous road win and they couldn’t let another chance slip away.
They were without Kristaps Porzingis (non-covid illness), but the Suns were missing five key players and playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Leading scorer Devin Booker showed up for the start of the game to collect the Western Conference’s player of the month award for October and November before he sat out with groin soreness.
Cameron Payne (foot) missed his fourth straight game, Jock Landale (concussion protocol) missed his second, and Josh Okogie was out with right hip soreness. Cameron Johnson remained sidelined with a meniscus tear and has played just eight games this season.
But even when they’re shorthanded, the Suns aren’t schlubs. On Monday, they hammered the Los Angeles Lakers, who were without LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, behind 28 points from point guard Chris Paul and 21 from center Deandre Ayton.
Bradley Beal wouldn’t let them pull off the same trick twice. He turned in 16 points in the fourth quarter to atone for a few late-game flubs and relieve pressure from Washington’s locker room.
“Damn near like we won a playoff game,” Beal said when asked to describe how the win felt. “This is like really high spirits. Everybody’s in a great mood. It’s like a weight fell off our shoulders a little bit. We got past that, and now we can continue to build on this and move forward. Granted, it doesn’t get easier.”
Beal finished with 27 points on 8-for-20 shooting and went 11 for 14 from the free throw line. He added six assists and six rebounds. Kuzma had 29 points, six assists and six rebounds, serving as the team’s sturdy foundation as Beal found his form.
Deni Avdija added 16 points — nine of which came in the fourth quarter — and 10 rebounds for his second double-double in three games. In Porzingis’s place, center Daniel Gafford had 12 points and nine rebounds in his first start of the season. Taj Gibson played the role of unlikely enforcer in the fourth, drawing a charge on Deandre Ayton and coming up with a big block after Kuzma’s late three-pointer to protect Washington’s lead.
But the Wizards shouldn’t have needed such a frantic stretch in the first place after racking up a double-digit lead in the third. The locker-room giddiness Beal described was accompanied with a cautious edge from Coach Wes Unseld Jr. and a heavy dollop of realism from Kyle Kuzma.
“I know everyone in that locker room is happy about it. Of course, we’ve come in through the fire a little bit,” Unseld said. “But I think it’s something we can continue to build on. When you play with that sense of urgency, with that level of physicality, did a great job of not turning the ball over, which has at times been an issue for us, I think you give yourselves a chance.”
Coming through in the clutch has been an issue for Washington lately. Kuzma said he felt as though they only halfway got the job done Tuesday.
“We almost tricked it off. We still have a lot of lapses in the game, and down the stretch a lot in the fourth,” Kuzma said. “Obviously we hit some shots tonight and it didn’t hurt us, but it’s been the same story. Tonight, we hit shots, congrats. But we have to minimize some of the mental lapses.”
The Wizards were crisp in the first half and held Phoenix to 18 points in the second quarter. Beal had a poor shooting start but began the game with a few excellent passes that helped establish some fluidity on offense. Kuzma and Gafford combined for 24 points in the first half, and piecemeal contributions from the bench helped make up for Beal’s low output.
Washington capitalized on 12 Suns turnovers to take a 17-point lead midway through the third quarter. But you might not have known which team was mired in a long losing streak, judging by the equal levels of hustle on the court — Phoenix took just more than four minutes to narrow its gap to five.
The Wizards stayed just a nose ahead through the third by getting to the free throw line, but a three-pointer by Landry Shamet just before the buzzer kicked off a surge that put the Suns on top by 10.
Shamet, who had a game-high 31 points, hit another three-pointer as the game ended, but by then Washington had done enough.
Here’s what else to know from Tuesday’s win:
Porzingis missed his second game of this six-game road trip — he sat out Wednesday’s loss at Denver with back tightness — after he began to feel ill Tuesday morning. Coach Wes Unseld Jr. said Porzingis returned a negative coronavirus test and was hopeful he was experiencing nothing more than a one- or two-day bug.
Gibson, the team’s 37-year-old, third-string center, was the defensive catalyst the Wizards so desperately needed in the fourth quarter. He described his second-half defense on Ayton as “old school,” fronting the big man, taking a charge and meeting him early to disrupt his actions.
“When you’ve got Ayton, almost 7-foot, 250 (pounds) constantly putting his elbow on your chest, you’ve got to learn to take one and take a charge,” he said.
Gibson won the belt Washington awards to the best defensive player of the game for the second time this season as a reward for his efforts.
“At this stage in my career, it’s important, it’s even more special when you’ve got young guys, young, talented players like what we have on this team cheering me on,” Gibson said. “Every day I come to the gym, [you’re] going to have doubts whether you can still play, you can still help the team. Tonight, it was just one of those things where when you stay locked in, you go to the gym every day, things do come your way. I’m just happy that we were able to get a win finally.”