Home Sports Wizards take a while to get going, but find stride to rally past Rockets

Wizards take a while to get going, but find stride to rally past Rockets

Wizards take a while to get going, but find stride to rally past Rockets


HOUSTON — The Washington Wizards stared down Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday to pull out a last-second win, then hopped on a plane south to Houston where, as it turned out, the real trouble waited. The Mavericks, Western Conference finalists last season, were merely a warm-up. The Rockets, owners of the worst record in the NBA, had the Wizards quaking in their boots for three quarters.

The Rockets thumped their visitors in the paint and outhustled them most of the night. But the hosts also had twice as many turnovers and the poor shot selection of a team with just 11 wins. The Wizards finally were able to seize on Houston’s shortcomings and rally for a 108-103 win at Toyota Center, their fourth straight victory.

Kyle Kuzma led a lackluster effort with 33 points and nine rebounds, turning the game with characteristic gutsy shooting from beyond the arc and a 20-point fourth quarter. He had five of Washington’s 12 three-pointers, which helped ease an uphill battle after the Wizards dug themselves into a 58-43 halftime deficit.

For a team that purports to want to make up ground in the standings, the Wizards (22-26) didn’t always look like they were trying for a victory Wednesday. They were sluggish from the start, and Bradley Beal and starting center Daniel Gafford sat on the bench for lengthy stretches of the first half while Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr. deployed lineups that could only be described as experimental.

Two-way guard Jordan Goodwin shared time on the court with Deni Avdija, Kuzma and wing Will Barton, who had fallen out of the rotation before the past two games. And fourth-string center Vernon Carey Jr., who was averaging 2.1 minutes in seven games before Wednesday, got a long first-half look.

Another group involved new arrival Kendrick Nunn, the former Los Angeles Laker who came to the team in the trade for Rui Hachimura, Corey Kispert, Kuzma, Barton and Carey.

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Unseld may have been piecing together lineups, at least in Carey’s case, because Kristaps Porzingis was sidelined for his second straight game with a left ankle sprain — the coach said he was looking for an energy boost. He may have been trying to see what he has in Nunn, the newbie, or Barton, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and Carey before the Feb. 9 trade deadline. He may have been showcasing certain players before then, or some combination of the three.

The result of the shoddy effort and the experimenting was a deficit that reached 19 in the first half as the Rockets (11-37) shot 50 percent in the first two quarters, scoring 34 points in the paint.

“I was trying to find a spark,” Unseld said, before complimenting Nunn and Gafford.

Washington finally created some separation in the fourth quarter with Kuzma, Gafford, Beal, Avdija and Nunn on the floor, though they weren’t always cruising. Kenyon Martin Jr. had a thunderous dunk with 4:36 to play that brought Houston within four. One dunk from Gafford and a jumper from Beal bumped the Wizards back into a comfort zone.

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“It was a choice. We could have said all right, down 15, don’t feel like playing tonight — or, let’s fight, compete, see what happens,” Unseld said. “To their credit, they chose the latter, and it changed the complexion of the game.”

A three-pointer from Kuzma with 58 seconds to play added cushion and even a turnover from Beal and subsequent dunk from Jabari Smith Jr. couldn’t help the Rockets after that.

Beal had 17 points, three rebounds and four assists, and Avdija had 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Alperen Sengun had a triple-double, leading Houston with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

Here’s what else to know from Wednesday’s win:

The Wizards may be close to accepting hamstring donations at this point. Monte Morris sat with right hamstring soreness that has bothered him at points throughout the year. It was the seventh game he has missed.

Nunn, 27, did well in his first time on court with the Wizards. The guard had 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting including two three-pointers and added four rebounds and four assists. He rarely looked lost despite his unfamiliarity with Washington’s playbook and had moments where he looked right at home in transition, but his highlight was a slow-building, driving dunk with one hand.

“I thought he was good. I know it’s tough because we haven’t yet had a full practice, and you throw a guy out there … but just play to his strengths,” Unseld said. “Made a heck of a play down the gut for a dunk, I thought that really got the group going. But he’s a good player. He’s got the ability to fill it up, play out of pick and rolls, he can score, and I thought he was better defensively.”

It doesn’t hurt Nunn’s familiarity — at least with the opponent — that his first games with the Wizards are against Western Conference teams.

“I feel pretty comfortable, I feel like I’ve been here for a while already,” Nunn said. “The guys embraced me with open arms, which always helps. They just told me to be myself.”

Kuzma’s big fourth quarter helped him to his second 30-point performance in a row.

“Once I saw one go in, I know it was going to open up for me,” Kuzma said. “Just me being confident, stepping up and making shots. I’m just trying to help the ballclub win a game.”

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