WASHINGTON -- The Washington Wizards beat the Indiana Pacers 133-123 on Sunday night at Capital One Arena. Here are five observations from what went down...
The Wizards have been through some difficult times over the past several months since their 10-3 start, with far too many low points to count, but Sunday was certainly a high point with the long-awaited debut of Kristaps Porzingis, their most significant acquisition at the Feb. 10 trade deadline. Not only did Porzingis play, he played well and was a key contributor in a Wizards victory.
Washington trailed by four points at halftime, but took advantage with a 39-to-26 edge in the third quarter. Porzingis was excellent in 21 minutes of work, pouring in 25 points (7-for-12 FG, 3-for-4 3PT) with five rebounds and two blocks, including one on Buddy Hield at a key moment late in the fourth quarter. He looked spry and sharp, not like a guy who missed over a month with a right knee injury.
The Wizards were able to get Porzingis a game under his belt before they head out on a lengthy West Coast road trip. If that was a sign of more to come, the Wizards should have a chance to win some games down the stretch of this season. He looked like the best player on the court for much of the night.
With the win, the Wizards improved to 29-34 on the season overall. They have won two out of their last three.
One area Porzingis helped the Wizards tremendously was by generating free throw attempts. They had only nine of them in their last game, a loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, and only six in a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers last week. Porzingis had six free-throw attempts himself by the midpoint of the first quarter. He kept getting to the line by aggressively attacking the rim and forcing the issue.
The Wizards went 26-for-32 from the line as a team, which was a big step in the right direction. That did not, however, enjoy much of an advantage in that category as the Pacers shot 25-for-29.
For the Wizards, Kyle Kuzma (23 points) also helped the cause by going 5-for-7 at the line, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (19 points) shot 6-for-7. He and Porzingis are two guys who will likely need to lead the way in that regard, though Rui Hachimura also seems like someone who could get to the line quite a bit if he sets his mind to it.
Porzingis coming back produced a shakeup in the Wizards' rotation which affected Thomas Bryant more than anyone. The 24-year-old big man was bumped from the rotation entirely, as he got a DNP for the first time since he returned in January from his ACL recovery. Daniel Gafford instead got the backup center minutes. Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. took Gafford out of the starting lineup and put him in the role he thrived in down the stretch of last season.
With Porzingis and Gafford as the one-two punch at center, the Wizards have two players who can block shots, which should give their defense some stability on the backend. They are the only pair of teammates in the NBA this season averaging at least 1.5 blocks per game apiece, and the first two Wizards teammates to do so since Brendan Haywood and JaVale McGee in 2009-10. While Bryant's offense is a plus, Porzingis also hits threes and at a higher volume. Bryant's best path towards minutes at the moment may be playing alongside Porzingis, which Unseld Jr. has indicated he may try at some point.
Bitadze was a problem
Third-year big man Goga Bitadze averages only 4.7 points per game and shoots 20% from three, but you wouldn't have known that if you only watched this game. He was an unstoppable force against the Wizards, for whatever reason. They had absolutely no answer for him in the first half, as he scored 17 points on a perfect 5-for-5 from the field and 3-for-3 from long range.
Bitadze slowed down in the second half and finished the game with 20 points (still a career-high) and six rebounds in 23 minutes. He shot 7-for-7 for the night. The Wizards left him a little too open early in the game and he capitalized by knocking down a few shots. That allowed him to establish a rhythm and the Wizards had to respect his three, so he used pump fakes to get past defenders and attack the rim. Given his pedestrian season numbers, he may have been fairly low on the scouting report. If that's the case, he certainly made the Wizards pay for overlooking him.
Neto got hurt
While the Wizards got Porzingis back, they lost point guard Raul Neto to a left ankle injury in the first half. He went up for a layup, got fouled and turned his left ankle as he landed. It was a nasty replay to watch as he laid on the ground writhing in pain. Neto, who is widely considered tough by his teammates and coaches, was able to get up and attempt the free throws. But after that, he left the game for good.
The fact Neto was able to limp around and stay in to shoot the free throws in all likelihood means he avoided the worst-case scenario of a significant fracture. But certainly it will be something the Wizards will monitor in the coming days, with their next game not until Wednesday in Los Angeles against the Clippers.
Neto is their starting point guard, so he will be missed if he has so sit out for any period of time. But the signing of Tomas Satoransky gave them depth at his position which will now come in handy.