NEW ORLEANS — The poor crowd at Smoothie King Center surely thought it would be bereft of starring big men Saturday night, what with Zion Williamson’s continued absence with a hamstring injury and Kristaps Porzingis missing his third straight game with a sprained left ankle.
Gafford led the Wizards with 21 points, 12 rebounds and five highlight-reel worthy blocks as they improved to 3-0 to start a five-game road trip.
“No matter what, I just kept playing,” Gafford said. “No matter if I turned the ball over, if I didn’t make a shot, if I messed up on defense — I just kept playing.”
Gafford added a dose of highflying drama to a game that required Washington (23-26) have patience, trust and, down the stretch, focus. Its reward was a five-game winning streak that has a good chance to grow in San Antonio on Monday and Detroit on Wednesday.
“We had a lot of momentum coming into this road trip. We came into this road trip with the mind-set of ‘It’s a business trip,’ ” Gafford said. “We’re going to have teams coming out trying to throw punches, and we’ve got to be able to throw punches back. Just being consistent with that, setting the tone physically, set the tone energy-wise and just coming out [and] playing our brand of basketball to help us win games is something that we need to stay focused on.”
Brandon Ingram got off to a hot start for the Pelicans (26-24), but the Wizards chipped away with Gafford in the paint as Bradley Beal and Corey Kispert provided exclamation points from the three-point line.
The game split wide open early in the second quarter after New Orleans center Jonas Valanciunas was ejected for a flagrant-two foul on Taj Gibson and Gifford had his run of the lane — he flew in from out of nowhere for blocks on defense and racked up 14 first-half points on the other end.
“It’s not always going to show up in the points column, but I think he’s done a terrific job as of late,” Coach Wes Unseld Jr. said. “... Being a rim protector, putting pressure on the rim as a roller, as an offensive rebounder, blocking shots — a lot of times, just the gravity of him rolling creates other opportunities.”
The Wizards were the sharper team before halftime, getting to the free throw line 12 times — Gafford went 4 for 6 — and leaning on Gafford and Gibson as the team snared nine offensive rebounds. New Orleans had just one, and the visitors’ aggression was the difference: The Wizards had 17 second-chance points as they walked to the locker room with a 59-50 advantage.
Washington padded its lead early in the third quarter when Kyle Kuzma assisted Kispert for a three-pointer and soon after hit one himself for his first points of the night. The Wizards led by 16 with 7:58 to play in the game but let up the intensity and got sloppier on defense, allowing the Pelicans to get within five with 5:18 left.
But the Wizards were still in control after a crucial coach’s challenge of a foul called on Deni Avdija was successful. Beal then took matters into his own hands. The guard had a three-point play coming out of the review, hit an effortless three-pointer from the top of the key and added two more points at the free throw line to extend the lead to 11 and get his team out of trouble in a wink.
“We just made it tough on them at the end,” Beal said after praising Kuzma’s defensive effort on Ingram. “Fourth quarter, Coach just told me to be aggressive and attack, and that’s what I did. I found some matchups to attack and found some easy looks.”
Beal ended up with 16 points, four rebounds and five assists. Kispert and newcomer Kendrick Nunn added 12 points apiece to a balanced, if not flashy, offensive effort that ended with seven players in double figures. Gibson had 10 rebounds, part of the Wizards’ 53-42 edge. They notched 25 second-chance points to the Pelicans’ 11.
CJ McCollum had 24 points and Ingram added 22 as the Pelicans logged their seventh straight loss, all without Williamson.
Here’s what else to know about the Wizards’ win:
Gill in covid protocols
Backup forward Anthony Gill entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols before the game after self-reporting coronavirus symptoms and subsequently tested positive, Unseld said. Gill became the first Wizards player to miss a game for coronavirus reasons since Beal sat out five in early November.
Kispert on fire
Kispert had his most productive game from the three-point line since Jan. 9, the previous time the Wizards played New Orleans. He hit 4 of 6 tries Saturday. In the teams’ first meeting in Chinatown, he made five of a season-high 10 attempts from beyond the arc as he scored 17 points.
Avdija on the boards
Avdija was one rebound shy of his third straight double-double. The 22-year-old finished with 15 points and nine rebounds.
“The biggest key for him is just being decisive, and he’s done that as of late,” Unseld said. “Making better decisions, playing with a little bit more aggression — I think it’s been good for him. He’s been good for us.”