In their two previous matchups, the Bulls had embarrassed and frustrated the Wizards. On Dec. 18, Chicago came to Washington and recovered from an 18-point deficit to win in overtime. After another loss in Chicago on Jan. 15, Wizards guard Bradley Beal grew so irritated he called out Washington’s culture.
This time, however, Washington (19-33) built a 21-point lead and did not waste it. Chicago (19-36), led by a 41-point performance from guard Zach LaVine, gave the Wizards a scare in the fourth quarter, though.
“This was huge, because they’re right behind us [in the standings],” said Wizards guard Ish Smith, who had a game-high nine assists. “They have beaten us, and I’m sure everybody thought, ‘Here we go again.’ But you’ve got to have a strong mind and kind of push through. History can repeat itself if you allow it, and I’m glad we didn’t allow it tonight.”
Beal scored a team-high 30 points for the Wizards and added seven assists. Many of his teammates were also productive. The Bulls were missing five rotation players because of injuries, including former Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr., and Chicago’s defense has struggled. Wizards starters Rui Hachimura (20 points) and Ian Mahinmi (15 points and six rebounds) feasted on the interior.
“That was part of the game plan,” backup center Moritz Wagner said about the Wizards’ inside emphasis. “They were jumping out on the pick and rolls. I think that’s what they do, and we were prepared to kind of make that play and attack the play and not be passive.”
Washington scored 62 points in the paint, and the trend of close-range scoring started early in the game when the Wizards made 13 layups and dunks in the first quarter. They opened their largest lead of the game in the third quarter during a stretch in which they got inside with impunity.
Near the midpoint of the quarter, Beal assisted Mahinmi around the rim. On the next possession, Smith found Beal cutting backdoor for a dunk. Mahinmi scored on the next two trips from the paint — on a hook shot and on a dunk after an offensive rebound — and Washington built a 94-73 lead with 4:17 to go in the quarter.
When things started to get tighter in the fourth quarter and the Wizards needed to protect the lead, they extended their range beyond just dunks and layups. LaVine scored 19 of his 41 points in the final period, and when he drove into the lane for an easy bucket with 2:33 remaining, the Bulls trailed just 111-105.
“LaVine makes big shots,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said. “He made shots that were contested. We tried to get it out of his hands. He was still able to shoot between two defenders, but that’s what he does.”
In response, Smith and Beal took turns drilling three-pointers. With a little more cushion, Washington returned to the interior. Smith set up Wagner for a layup and a foul, and after Wagner made the ensuing free throw, the Wizards were up 120-108 and finally had lasting separation.
“We got a few stops down the stretch,” Brooks said. “We were able to score in the fourth quarter. . . . We had a few mess-ups earlier in that fourth, but I thought the guys came back in.”
Shabazz Napier, in his third game with the Wizards after arriving at the trade deadline, finished with 15 points off the bench, and Wagner added another 12 on 5-for-7 shooting.
“We got the win. I think that’s more important,” Smith said after acknowledging the fourth-quarter letdown. “That’s the most important thing. I thought we kept the pace up. Defensively, we did a great job. Zach went a little crazy towards the end, but we did a great job on both ends.”
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