The Wizards can credit strong start to Kuzma and Gafford's heroics originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Washington is no stranger to close games this season. Of the 20 games the Wizards have played, 14 have been decided by 10 points or less.
Two players have stuck out as Washington’s saving grace during crunch time this year: Kyle Kuzma and Daniel Gafford.
Take the Wizards’ most recent victory for example—a 120-114 win in Dallas. Luka Doncic’s layup with 1:56 remaining in the fourth quarter tied the game at 109 apiece. After that, it was the Kuzma and Gafford show.
Gafford was able to collect the rebound off a missed Bradley Beal layup and kicked it out to Kuzma, who drained a triple from the wing to give Washington a 112-109 lead with a minute and a half left. It was a huge momentum builder, energizing the Wizards for the remainder of the contest.
The very next offensive possession, Gafford would claim yet another clutch offensive rebound off a Deni Avdija missed three, putting it back up for a dunk and a five-point Wizards lead. Kuzma would grab the rebound off Dallas’ final possession and sink two free throws to give Washington the 120-114 win.
One game earlier, the Wizards would narrowly escape Oklahoma City with a two-point win over the Thunder. In the final six minutes of the contest, Gafford and Kuzma would combine for five points, one block, four rebounds, and one assist. The duo was the catalyst Washington needed in the final minutes, both in terms of energy and production on both ends of the floor.
The previous win, 103-100 over Miami earlier in November, saw much of the same for the young duo of Gafford and Kuzma. Washington was down 99-98 with 34.8 seconds remaining, and Kuzma took over. He’d score the final four points for the Wizards—all at the free throw line—in addition to a rebound to put the game out of reach for the Heat.
It was noted last week that Bradley Beal has often felt obligated to do too much for the Wizards during their late-game offensive possessions, but he doesn’t need to. Gafford and Kuzma have proven themselves to be two necessary pieces for Wes Unseld Jr.’s crunch time lineup.
It seems as though whenever the Wizards have desperately needed a bucket in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter this season, Kuzma has stepped up. His triple against Cleveland on Nov. 10 won the game for Washington in the final seconds.
He doesn’t get shaken or crumble under the pressure. Rather, Kuzma seems like he wants the ball in those moments, as his off-ball movement has repeatedly given him space on the perimeter to catch-and-shoot.
Gafford has been clutch in other ways. His positioning under the basket, much like his fellow center Montrezl Harrell, has been flawless. He uses his size in the post to box out defenders and secure loose balls when Washington has needed more time with the ball.
Apart from his rebounding, Gafford’s blocking ability has been a saving grace for the Wizards on defense. Remember that win over the Thunder? It wouldn’t have been possible without a career-high eight blocks for the 23-year-old.
Kuzma supplies the clutch shooting and spacing; Gafford provides the rebounding and blocking. Two very different contributions, but both are equally necessary for Washington to grind out these close wins. Gafford and Kuzma have surely done enough to secure their spot in the Wizards’ crunch time rotation for the foreseeable future. Without the two of them, Washington probably wouldn’t be nearly as high in the Eastern Conference standings as they currently are.