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Deni Avdija lights up Pelicans for 43, but Wizards fall on the road

Deni Avdija lights up Pelicans for 43, but Wizards fall on the road

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

NEW ORLEANS — It looked as though the Washington Wizards had either started their all-star break early or were out celebrating Mardi Gras late when they trailed the New Orleans Pelicans by 20 points in the first half Wednesday. They were down a starter, with Kyle Kuzma out because of a non-covid illness, and looked overmatched against Zion Williamson and Co.

But the mark of this Washington team since interim coach Brian Keefe took over in late January has been its fight, regardless of the outcome, so the Wizards fought to the end in a 133-126 loss at Smoothie King Center, their eighth straight defeat. They attacked loose balls, fought for rebounds, charged into the paint and played unrelentingly fast in the second half.

Most importantly, they got the ball to Deni Avdija.

Avdija led the Wizards with a career-high 43 points to go with 14 tough rebounds, continuing a scoring run that began Feb. 4 against Phoenix (save for one nine-point game against Cleveland nestled in the middle).

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“It’s a little emotional,” Avdija said. “I never thought that coming to the league, seeing all those numbers, those big players score those points, [I’d be] able to be that hot. All the hard work, the times that I was down or I didn’t have good games — I was down on myself a lot of times, and I stuck with it. I kept working hard, I kept being patient, I went through a lot. And for me, it’s only the start. I feel like I’m still getting better … but honestly, hard work and patience do pay off.”

Avdija displayed no patience Wednesday — he was the aggressor for three quarters. The 23-year old clearly relishes the increased ballhandling duties Keefe has given him and muscled his way to the rim on both sides of the ball. He had established a career high of 27 points by the middle of the third quarter and was still warming up.

It helped that he combined brawn with aggressiveness moving with savvy against the larger Pelicans and getting to the line, where he made 11 of 13 attempts.

“He’s getting more opportunities to handle the ball. We’re constantly asking him to guard the best players in different positions, and we have played a little smaller at times so he’s getting a chance to handle even more,” Keefe said at the team’s shoot-around Wednesday morning, answering a general question about Avdija’s strong play of late. “But [we’re] putting him in positions to attack, positions to attack the rim and make plays for himself and his teammates.”

Avdija flipped between attacker and setup man Wednesday night, recording just two assists but making clutch plays as in a run during the third quarter, when he hit two free throws and on the next possession reached on his tip toes to save the ball from going out of bounds on a missed Corey Kispert three-pointer. He flung the ball back to Kispert, who kicked it to Tyus Jones for a three-pointer that lifted the visitors to a three-point lead.

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On the next trip down the floor, he hit an easy layup.

“A lot of my offense comes from me competing on defense and making stops and getting the rebounds,” Avdija said. “That’s how I get in the game, that’s my bread and butter. It’s always going to be there, regardless of the offense, and I feel like that’s what gets me going a lot of games, getting to the defense, knowing the personnel, being there for my teammates and making big plays for the team to be able to compete.”

The Wizards (9-45) looked as though they started the game half-asleep, especially on defense. The Pelicans (33-22) zipped out to a double-digit lead early in the second quarter and widened the gap to 20 before Washington woke up. The visitors saved themselves from falling into the abyss with a few critical defensive stops on the perimeter, then they pushed the ball ahead and hit three-pointers.

They put together an 11-0 run capped by a three-pointer at the buzzer from Jordan Poole (16 points) to whittle the Pelicans’ lead to eight at halftime. They kept their energy high coming out of the break.

“[The resiliency is] coming from the top, to start. BK is demanding it out of us,” Kispert said, referring to Keefe. “You don’t get to play if you’re not playing hard, playing tough. It’s a really, really good thing for us – that game, being down 20 in the second quarter, two months ago we would have let go of the rope and lost by 30, 35. So it’s just an example of even if we didn’t get a win tonight, we showed some really good, positive [signs]. … We’re not winning the way we want to, but the resilience, the DNA of the group is changing, and it’s going to be for the better.”

While the three-pointers continued to flow in clutch time — the Wizards had six in the fourth quarter — their execution on offense needed cleaning up. The Wizards had five costly turnovers in the period.

With the offense running through Avdija, Jones organized the whole thing to the tune of 13 assists and had eight of his 14 points in the fourth quarter. Kispert had 20 points off the bench thanks to five three-pointers, and Poole added seven assists.

Williamson led New Orleans with 36 points, and CJ McCollum had 26.

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