MILWAUKEE — The significance of Tuesday night could be seen every time Bradley Beal, the Washington Wizards’ top playmaker, handled the ball in the fourth quarter and searched solely for the rim.
It showed in John Henson’s anguished face, imploring his Milwaukee Bucks squad to defend, and in Markieff Morris’s smooth release when his baseline jumper thwarted those plans. And the game especially seemed important during the Wizards’ final defensive sequence, when Morris executed the scouting report against Bucks all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo to perfection and Tomas Satoransky threw himself to the court to protect the rebound and possession.
The Wizards treated this late February matchup against a fellow Eastern Conference contender with the appropriate gravity, building a big lead and holding on to defeat the Bucks, 107-104. With the win, Washington evened the regular season series — a momentous footnote come spring when these teams still could be jostling for playoff positioning.
“It was a playoff-type game,” Beal said. “We needed this game to tie up the series. They needed to go up, especially when it comes down to seedings, but we took full advantage of the game. [We] made plays down the stretch, and it was all about our defense getting stops when we needed to and we hit some big shots down the stretch.”
Washington (36-25) sits in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and is 2½ games ahead of sixth-place Milwaukee (33-27).
“It was a big win,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “We played a very good team, a talented team, in a tough environment.”
The Wizards constructed a 21-point advantage in the first quarter and never relinquished control, though they did have to fight off the Bucks as Milwaukee came within two in the closing seconds. Antetokounmpo, who scored a game-high 23 points to go with 13 rebounds, missed a 13-foot jumper with Morris defending on the Bucks’ final possession.
“[Don’t] let him get to the turnaround over his right shoulder,” Morris said, repeating his defensive mission on the last shot. “That’s usually his bread and butter in the fourth quarter. So I felt like if I make him go middle, then I just got to live with the results.”
Satoransky recovered the rebound, and Beal hit 1 of 2 free throws with 0.8 seconds remaining to produce the final margin of victory.
Beal played better away from the line — he was just 1 of 3 on free throws for the night — in scoring seven of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. Beal also shared the ball for a team-best eight assists as the Wizards executed their ball democracy again to success, compiling 30 assists on 42 made field goals.
Otto Porter Jr. scored 17 points to go with seven rebounds, while Morris finished with 14 points. As a team, the Wizards scored 52 points in the paint, an aggressiveness that started early in the game.
Relentless from the beginning, Washington scored a season-high 40 points in the opening quarter. The Wizards neutralized Milwaukee’s greatest advantage — its roster of long-armed players who can easily switch on defense and frustrate shooters. But by zipping the ball around and moving in transition as well as the half court, Washington created 12 assists on 16 field goals and opened a 26-5 lead.
“We continue to play together,” center Marcin Gortat said, “and that’s big for us. Obviously [Wednesday] is an even bigger game, so we’ve got to get ready.”
Washington returns home to face the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors, continuing a stretch of nationally televised games against playoff-caliber teams. The Wizards must wait until March 25 (a home game against the New York Knicks) to face an opponent that is not in the playoff hunt.
If Washington and Milwaukee meet again in the playoffs, both should be healthy and whole for the first time. Although John Wall had played in the previous three matchups, leading the Wizards with the high assist total each time, he missed his 13th straight game for left knee rehabilitation. Wednesday will mark four weeks into his recovery, but he has yet to return to on-court activities.
While the Bucks didn’t have to deal with Wall, the Wizards saw Milwaukee forward Jabari Parker for the first time this season.
Parker, the second overall pick in the 2014 draft, has played in only eight games since recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament from last year. Now feeling his way back into NBA shape, Parker came off the bench and hit his first five shots before finishing with 19 points.
Parker’s shooting lit the fuse for Milwaukee’s comeback attempt, and it didn’t hurt that Washington loosened its reins on the defensive end.
The Bucks made 10 of 19 from the field in the second quarter and carried their aggressiveness into the second half. While the Wizards dealt with myriad problems — Satoransky sitting with his fourth foul and the disappearance of ball and player movement among the remaining starters — the Bucks pulled within three points by the end of the third quarter.
But the Wizards remained in front with plays such as Morris’s baseline jumper after the Bucks had cut the lead to one and Satoransky’s single fourth-quarter rebound that came at just the right time. Ultimately, the Wizards won because they took this game seriously.
“Great teams win on the road,” Beal said, “and we want to be a great team.”