WASHINGTON -- Daniel Gafford was in an undesirable position. A miscommunication by the Wizards' defense left him for a moment as the one with eyes on both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. With Lopez in the corner, Antetokounmpo charged towards the rim, bowling over Gafford as he stepped in his way.
Gafford hurt his right elbow on the fall as the referees called him for a shooting foul. It was an insult to injury as Antetokounmpo made the basket and the subsequent free throw en route to a career-high 55 points.
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Just over a minute later, Gafford found himself once again in Antetokounmpo's path. The two-time MVP rolled off a screen to shed Kyle Kuzma and picked up speed as he entered the lane. This time he tried to dunk and, although Gafford successfull thwarted the attempt, the collision sent him flying past the stanchion under the hoop.
Gafford was once again wincing in pain, favoring the elbow. Less than a minute later, he exited for the locker room to get examined by the medical staff.
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Such is life for an NBA big man, sometimes you have to put your body in harm's way. But Gafford has shown a particular resilience, never stepping away from a challenge with what is known in the NBA as a 'business decision.'
"People make business decisions all the time. My business decision is playing defense," Gafford said.
Though his elbow was barking that night, Gafford wasn't even on the injury report for the next game. And in that next game, he once again stopped a high-flyer at the rim.
Thunder rookie Jalen Williams took off from the corner down the baseline, as Gafford jumped from under the hoop to meet him in the sky. The refs called a foul, but after a challenge from head coach Wes Unseld Jr., it was overturned as a block.
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Gafford has helped the Wizards allow the sixth-fewest points in the restricted area this season, a bright spot for their defense which has been rather streaky overall. He (-12.2%) and Kristaps Porzingis (-12.6%) each hold opposing players to about 12% lower than their season shooting percentage within six feet of the rim, per Second Spectrum.
Porzingis deserves a lot of credit for the Wizards' success in that regard, but Gafford seems to get the worst of the pileups under the rim. Gafford is sometimes deployed to the tougher, more physical defensive assignments in order to save Porzingis' injury for the offensive end.
As the Antetokounmpo experienced showed, he is also sometimes put in compromising positions in help defense.
"It shows a little toughness, mentally and physically, that you can play through some things, accepting that challenge," Unseld Jr. said. "It’s easy when you’ve got a guy like that and the way he plays, to kind of bail out at times. Whether the guy scores or not, he’s going to have to earn it. I think it’s a mindset that’s good for all of us to have."
Antetokounmpo is one of many examples of Gafford facing off with the NBA's best rim-finishers. Earlier this season, he had a series of contests against Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards, who has a reputation for poster dunks, like his infamous one against Yuta Watanabe.
Gafford is second on the team this season to Porzingis with 47 blocks in 40 games. He's averaging 1.2 blocks per contest and 2.5 blocks per-36 minutes.
But as Gafford noted, he's not always the victor against his airbone adversaries. Every once in a while someone will get the best of him with a dunk, or in the case of Antetokounmpo an and-1 layup.
Gafford said he will "get a good laugh" out of those plays, which sometimes go viral on social media. You win some and you lose some.
That perspective is part of what it takes to make such a sacrifice for your team. Sometimes your body is bruised and sometimes it's your ego.
"It’s really just a mindset. No matter if they dunk it or not, it’s going up and trying to get some hand on the ball. That’s the main thing. I’m just trying to go up, whether I jump through you or I meet you at the rim. It’s really just timing and, I don’t know, not being scared," he said.