The Capital One Arena crowd erupted as the ball fell through the net, and not long after, the Washington Wizards had ended their three-game skid by securing a 100-97 victory without three starters.
Kuzma, who came into the postgame news conference with a bloody scratch across his nose, said he knew the shot was good when it left his hands.
“I didn’t expect him to make that one,” Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr. said. “But that was the play.
“If you’re a competitor, everyone dreams of that moment. We’ve seen him make those type of plays in his short tenure here. He’s going to play with a level of confidence.”
Kuzma added, “I was just trying to give myself the best chance to make a play.”
As guard Bradley Beal remained out with a hamstring strain, Kristaps Porzingis and Daniel Gafford were on the sideline in street clothes. Since they’re 7-foot-3 and 6-foot-10, they left a gaping hole — especially after the Wizards took off on a five-game winning streak with a lineup featuring both big men.
Porzingis was out with a rib contusion and Gafford had an ankle sprain. That forced Washington (18-24) to go small, with Gibson (6-9) moving into the starting lineup and Anthony Gill (6-8) logging minutes off the bench as the only big on the floor for significant stretches.
“Obviously, we benefited from the big lineup the last two weeks or so,” Unseld said before the game. “ … But I think that there’s a comfort level as far as using [Deni Avdija, Kuzma and Gill at power forward].”
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Gill took advantage. The third-year forward out of Virginia finished with a career-high 18 points, including 12 at halftime. Avdija helped his undersized teammates on the boards with a career-high 20 rebounds to go with nine points.
“It’s funny because everyone says, ‘Obviously, you knew you were going to get a lot of run,’ ” Gill said. “I had no idea. I never know when I’m going to get in the game. We didn’t find out that those guys weren’t playing until a certain time on the clock today. So it wasn’t like I got to wake up in the morning and, like, prepare myself for a lot of minutes.
“All that preparation goes in days before and even weeks and months before. My role is, when somebody goes down, I have to be ready to step up. Whenever that is, there’s no heads up about it. You can’t predict what guy’s going to go down. So you just have to be ready.”
Chicago (19-23) was in control for much of the night. The Bulls used a 13-2 second-quarter run to go into halftime up 59-46. Washington rallied with a 41-point third quarter that was one shy of a season high. Starting point guard Monte Morris scored 15 of his 17 points in the period to pull the Wizards back into the game. Kuzma (21 points) and Jordan Goodwin had crucial buckets, and Washington took an 87-80 lead into the fourth.
“Just played with a little better pace,” Unseld said about the third quarter. “Got some stops. Got out in transition. Even in third, but fourth quarter there a lot of scrappy plays. I thought we were just a little bit more energetic, played a little bit more force on both ends.”
Did he deliver a message to his team at intermission?
“You can’t get outworked. We’re already undermanned, can’t get outworked. And I thought particularly in that second half, but throughout the game we made plays like that. … It’s got nothing to do with scheme. It’s got nothing to do with where guys are. It’s a will. And I thought we made more of those plays tonight.”
Zach LaVine was the Wizards’ biggest headache for three quarters as he poured in 38 points and spearheaded the Bulls’ fourth-quarter comeback. LaVine beat the shot clock with a catch-and-shoot three-pointer to tie the score at 97 with 30.1 seconds remaining, but that only set up Kuzma’s heroics.
Here’s what else to know about the Wizards’ win:
Vernon Carey Jr. (right quad contusion) and Johnny Davis (right hip strain) also were sidelined for the Wizards, but Corey Kispert (lower back soreness) started despite being a game-time decision. He had six points in 25 minutes.
The Bulls were without leading scorer DeMar DeRozan (quad).
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Bulls center Andre Drummond left the game in the second quarter with four fouls in three minutes on the court. The Wizards’ initial reaction would have been shock … if they hadn’t seen something eerily similar just over a month ago in Chicago. In that game, a 115-111 Bulls win, Drummond checked out in the second quarter with four fouls in five minutes.
He finished Wednesday’s game with two rebounds, one assist and five fouls in eight minutes.