The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kristaps Porzingis, Wizards make most of Joel Embiid’s absence

Wizards center Daniel Gafford drives to the basket against 76ers guard Shake Milton during Wednesday's 121-111 Washington win in Philadelphia. (Laurence Kesterson/AP)
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PHILADELPHIA — First came the half-hook through contact, then the dunk. Up next were a pair of jumpers over smaller defenders sandwiched between a pair of free throws. And that was just the beginning.

Wizards center Kristaps Porzingis has thrived in a pair of matchups with the 76ers this week, particularly with Joel Embiid’s absence (non-covid illness) handcuffing Philadelphia. In Washington’s 121-111 win Wednesday night at Wells Fargo Center, Porzingis had 30 points and nine assists — his second straight game with at least 30 points — as the visitors ended a three-game skid.

Porzingis, for one, didn’t miss Embiid.

“I don’t have to waste all that energy fighting a guy that’s 100 pounds heavier than me,” Porzingis said. “So it’s, of course, better for me.

“ … Me and Joel, I like playing against him because there’s some advantages on his side, and then there’s some advantages on my side. I had to take advantage of a team like this. Every game is different. … This kind of game is more interior.”

Despite being without their MVP candidate, the 76ers stayed close for most of the second half. The Wizards leaned on Bradley Beal (29 points), Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma (18 points, eight rebounds) in the fourth quarter, with the trio scoring 26 of the Wizards’ 30 points over the final 12 minutes.

“We didn’t turn the ball over, and we got to the line,” Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr. said. “We were aggressive. Just shy of 70 points in the paint. Those are high-efficiency looks. And that allows you to kind of stem the tide.”

The Wizards (4-4) took a 57-51 lead into halftime, set up by late runs in the first and second quarters. Washington used a 12-2 stretch started by Porzingis and closed with a three-point play from Monte Morris to lead by six after the first quarter.

James Harden was kept in relative check, but he scored seven straight second-quarter points to help pull the 76ers within three. The Wizards responded with a Will Barton jumper and a three-pointer from Porzingis to lead by six at the break.

Philadelphia (4-5) got hot from beyond the arc in the third quarter, making 8 of 12 from deep. Shake Milton’s buzzer-beating three-pointer left the hosts down just one entering the final period, but Porzingis, Beal and Kuzma were too much down the stretch.

Tyrese Maxey led the shorthanded 76ers with 32 points. Harden finished with 24 points and 10 assists.

Here’s what else to know about the Wizards’ victory:

Embiid’s absence

Philadelphia Coach Doc Rivers said Embiid has the flu and hasn’t been around the team as a precaution after doctors advised him to stay away.

I don’t know how we survived in our way,” Rivers said. “How everyone else didn’t get sick, I don’t know. But I do think it’s the right thing that we’re doing now all over the league.

“Teams used to go on road trips, and one guy would get sick, and then the next thing you know, the whole team eventually got sick. And so I think we’re doing the right thing [keeping Embiid isolated]. Except for your key guys sometimes aren’t around. That hurts you.”

Kuzma gets aggressive

Kuzma was held to nine points in each of the previous two games, and Unseld took responsibility, saying he needed to find a way to get the forward going. Unseld said Kuzma needs to defend at a high level and find easier offense. Unseld’s direction appeared to take with Kuzma, who consistently scored off backcuts and in the paint. His line also included four assists.

“You know my numbers are going to be up and down. Anytime you’re the third option, some games you have high number, some games you don’t. That’s how it is,” Kuzma said. “It’s all about just finding your spots and rhythm. We’ve been experimenting with different lineups and trying to get our rhythm back to what it was the first five. I’m a good basketball player. I can figure it out. It just takes some time.”

Three-point difference

The 76ers shot 52.8 percent from behind the arc while the Wizards hit just 23.8 percent of their threes. Unseld liked the looks and said they need to continue to find a way to get more attempts after going 5 for 21.