Kristaps Porzingis’ absence looms large in loss to Nuggets

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Porzingis’ absence looms large in loss to Nuggets originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

You can look up just about any stat these days, so there is no pretending Kristaps Porzingis has been a magic antidote to Nikola Jokic over the years. Jokic, the NBA’s back-to-back MVP, has had some big games against him, just as he has against every other player in the league.

Still, the Wizards sure could have used the ‘Unicorn’ on Wednesday night, as the ‘Joker’ led the Nuggets to a historic night scoring in the paint. That’s at least as far as we can tell, as paint-scoring stats don’t go back further than 1996-97. That means the incredible feats of Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar aren’t included in that category.

But in the modern NBA, the Wizards’ defense allowed some highly unusual numbers. Denver had 98 paint points, which more than doubled what the Wizards allow on the season (47.2), as they entered this game ranked fifth in the NBA in the category.

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Those 98 points were the most the Wizards have surrendered since at least 1996-97, per And, according to Sport Radar, it’s the most paint points any team has scored in five years, since the Indiana Pacers dropped 100 points in the paint against the Toronto Raptors in 2017.

Throughout all of this, Porzingis’ value to the Wizards was demonstrated in absentia. He missed this game with back tightness after leaving Monday’s loss to the Nets with the injury and, well, it’s safe to say the Wizards missed him.

The Wizards started Taj Gibson in Porzingis’ place, keeping Daniel Gafford in the backup center role. By the end of the game, head coach Wes Unseld Jr. even tried Deni Avdija guarding Jokic as a small-ball center as he searched for ways to stop him.

Jokic ended up with 43 points on 17-of-20 shooting with all 17 of his field goals coming in the paint. Bones Hyland (23 points), Aaron Gordon (22 points) and Jeff Green (10 points) were among others who did damage down low.

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Nikola Jokic’s shot chart vs. the Wizards on Wednesday night.

It stands to reason Porzingis would have provided more resistance if he was healthy and on the floor. He holds opposing players to 11.3% worse than their season average on shots within six feet of the rim. Before this game, the Wizards hadn’t allowed more than 68 paint points in a game this season.

Porzingis isn’t a perfect defender, but at 7-foot-3 he provides quite the obstacle to those trying to finish around the basket. While the Wizards’ defense has struggled overall this season, ranking 24th in defensive rating (113.8), their paint defense ranking fifth (at least before Wednesday) is a marked improvement from last year when they were 21st.

Porzingis likely deserves a lot of credit for that, given he was a significant personnel change that directly affects that area of the game. Washington have have some other defensive issues, but there seems to be a cause-and-effect that suggests the paint defense could be sustainable, as long as Porzingis is in the lineup.

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But Porzingis’ value being evidenced in the fashion that it was on Wednesday could provide some lessons for the Wizards. Beyond the fact they now have a better idea of how much he means to the team, they also may realize how important it is to pick up the slack when he is out.

Porzingis’ current injury is considered minor, so he could be back for their next game on Saturday against the Clippers. It would be great to have him return at least by Sunday when they play the Lakers, who score the second-most paint points per game in the league.

But over time, it’s inevitable he will miss some games here and there, as most players do. The Wizards just got a reminder of what it’s like to play without him and will need to find a way to compensate better next time around.

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