The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wizards edge Mavericks in their first game since Rui Hachimura’s exit

Wizards 127, Mavericks 126

The Mavericks' Luka Doncic shoots over the Wizards' Deni Avdija on Tuesday night. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
5 min

DALLAS — When Wes Unseld Jr. woke up early Tuesday morning, he had an unusual item on his long to-do list ahead of the Wizards’ 127-126 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Washington’s second-year coach had a new player to meet.

Kendrick Nunn had taken a 5 p.m. flight from Los Angeles to Dallas on Monday after learning he had been traded four hours earlier, packing up what he could of his house and saying goodbye to his two young children. All of a sudden, the third-year guard had a 10-day road trip on the docket and Rui Hachimura was headed west.

The Wizards sending Hachimura to the Los Angeles Lakers for Nunn and three second-round picks opened trade season well ahead of the NBA’s Feb. 9 deadline. The move gave Washington some salary flexibility and the type of draft capital that President and General Manager Tommy Sheppard historically has used to grease future trades — Tomas Satoransky, drafted in 2012, was the most recent second-round pick to become a rotation player with Washington.

Practically, Sheppard said Tuesday the move allows the Wizards to play 2020 lottery pick Deni Avdija more. The front office believes the 22-year-old will have a key role in the team’s future.

“Defensively, I think we need Deni on the floor more,” Sheppard said. “Better secondary playmaker, just turned 22 — I think he has a bright future. I think when you’re taking his minutes and they’re getting cut different ways, it’s hard.”

Sheppard called Avdija, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound forward averaging eight points, six rebounds and 2.5 assists entering Tuesday, the team’s second-best defender behind backup point guard Delon Wright and pointed to his talent as a defender on the wing and in the pick and roll. The third-year player is averaging 25.8 minutes, up slightly from his second year in the league (24.2), but has been in and out of the starting lineup.

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On Tuesday, he scored 15 points and added 10 rebounds in 32 minutes off the bench in a defense-light, up-and-down battle that came down to the final seconds.

But Avdija isn’t the only player who could benefit from Hachimura’s departure. Unseld said Tuesday that there’s also more opportunity for Kyle Kuzma to slide from small forward — where he has started lately alongside Kristaps Porzingis at power forward and Daniel Gafford at center — back to power forward, where he initially blossomed for the Wizards last season.

Kuzma started at power forward Tuesday alongside guard Corey Kispert at shooting forward and Gafford at center because Porzingis is sidelined with a left ankle sprain.

“At the beginning of the season, we’re playing KP more at the five, [Kuzma] was predominantly at the four, and I think that helped him offensively. So [this] kind of pushes him back to that four spot a little bit, allows him to play off the bounce, attack off fours in coverage, which has been really good for us,” Unseld said. “Deni will obviously benefit a little bit as a playmaker, being able to have the ball in his hands and play pick and rolls a little bit more, but that spot, those minutes are kind of up for grabs. Whether Deni’s at the three, Deni’s at the four, KP’s at the four, it does allow us a lot more flexibility.”

The Wizards (21-26) also now have more financial flexibility, which Sheppard said will go at least partly toward backup guard Jordan Goodwin’s standard contract. Washington plans to convert the two-way player once it opens a roster spot by waiving a player or making a trade. Goodwin was inactive Tuesday and under his current contract can play only six more NBA games this season.

Against Dallas (25-24), the shorthanded Wizards fought hard to the final minutes.

Without Porzingis, its second-leading scorer, Washington tried to match Luka Doncic’s scoring barrage by committee. It had six players in double figures behind Kuzma’s team-leading 30 points. Bradley Beal had 22 points and four assists, and Kispert added 14 points in his 25th start.

No player on the floor was more awe-inspiring than Doncic, whose 41 points came without a three-pointer and who added 15 rebounds. But the Wizards didn’t have to be flashier. They just had to be sharper down the stretch.

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Washington closed the game with Avdija on the floor and a small lineup after Gafford fouled out with nine points in 19 minutes. Beal made a three-pointer with 1:32 to play that put his team up one, and Kispert made a smart move as he was lunging for a loose ball to save a possession that ended with Avdija at the free throw line, where he hit both shots for a three-point lead.

Doncic hit a jumper to put the Mavericks back within one. He stole the ball from Beal on the other end and drew a foul on the fast break to tie the score with 12.5 seconds to play.

Kuzma chucked a Hail Mary jumper from the wing and drew a foul on Doncic but made just his second free throw, which turned out to be enough. Wright stole the ball from Doncic on the final play, giving the Wizards their third straight win to open their five-game trip.