PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference, first round; Game 1.
It’s been more than two decades since the Washington Wizards won a playoff series. The Chicago Bulls haven’t been in the playoffs since 1998. Neither of that will matter much when the teams meet in an opening-round series.
A postseason matchup between the Wizards and the Bulls seemed very unlikely heading into this season after the teams combined to win only 48 games in 2003-04. Both clubs, however, were among the NBA’s most improved teams, with Washington going from 25 wins to 45, and Chicago’s total jumping from 23 to 47.
This is the Bulls’ first playoff appearance since Michael Jordan led them to the last of the franchise’s six NBA titles in 1998.
Washington, in the postseason for the first time since 1997, hasn’t won a playoff series since 1982. Only the Clippers, who last won a series in 1976 when the franchise was known as the Buffalo Braves, have endured a longer drought.
“We’re both the underdogs,” Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas said. “No one expected us here. We did a great job this year, both teams. It’s going to be great, exciting, inexperienced basketball.”
Both rosters are young, and thin on playoff experience. The Wizards have only three players who have played in the postseason: Larry Hughes as a rookie with Philadelphia in 1999, Antawn Jamison as a sixth man with Dallas last year, and Anthony Peeler with the Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota and Sacramento.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Washington’s Brendan Haywood said. “We’ve been one of the teams that has been stepped on over the years, and now we’re one of the teams that’s doing the stepping.”
While both teams have inexperience in common, their styles of play are very different.
Chicago led the NBA in field goal percentage defense (42.2) this season and relies on an aggressive style preached by coach Scott Skiles. That commitment to defense helped the Bulls hold 26 straight opponents under 100 points during one stretch in December and January.
Some have even called the Bulls’ style dirty, a notion Skiles disputes.
“Whenever you’re a good defensive team things like that are said, it seems to me. So I’m not real worried about it,” he said.
The Wizards have seen Chicago’s aggressive style firsthand. The teams engaged in a skirmish during a preseason game at the United Center, resulting in Bulls forward Antonio Davis and Haywood wrestling on the floor.
Earlier this month, Chicago’s Tyson Chandler was ejected for stepping on Haywood’s midsection after pushing the Wizards center to the floor.
“We know it’s going to be physical. We know they’ve got a couple of dirty players,” Arenas said. “We’ve been watching tape on them. There’s nothing you can do—just go out and play your game.”
Curry, who averaged 16.1 points per game, is out for the playoffs due to an irregular heartbeat, and Deng is facing three to six months of rehab from surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right wrist.
The Bulls will attempt to become only the third team in NBA history to win a first-round playoff series without their leading scorer.
While Curry won’t be available, the Bulls’ most important player may be rookie guard Ben Gordon, who’s bidding to become the only first-year player to win Sixth Man of the Year honors. Gordon has scored at least 10 fourth-quarter points in a league-high 21 games this season.
“He has constantly bailed us out of fourth-quarter situations,” Davis said. “He’s been improving all year. I’m hopeful he’ll win the Sixth Man Award or Rookie of the Year, and that will explain what he means to this team.”
Despite the losses of Curry and Deng, Chicago is 38-18 since Jan. 1, ranking it behind only Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix, Houston and Miami in that span.
Washington clinched a playoff spot with a 93-82 victory over Chicago on April 13, its eighth straight home win over the Bulls.
The Wizards nearly had three players average 20 points a game, with Jamison (19.6) falling just short of joining Arenas (25.5) and Larry Hughes (22.1).
While scoring shouldn’t present a problem for Washington, Hughes knows defense is where the Wizards need to improve.
“It is team defense that we lack,” said Hughes, the league leader in steals. “We have guys trying to play individual defense, guys not knowing where the other guy’s going to be.”
Curry’s absence is a big advantage for the Wizards, who lack a powerful inside presence. Without Curry in the middle, Arenas, Hughes and Jamison should have more room to create their shots.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Wizards - 5th seed. Bulls - 4th seed.
TEAM LEADERS: Wizards - Arenas, 25.5 ppg and 5.1 apg; Jamison, 7.6. rpg. Bulls - Curry, 16.1 ppg; Tyson Chandler, 9.7 rpg; Hinrich, 6.4 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Wizards, 2-1. Washington won both home games against Chicago and lost the only meeting at the United Center on Feb. 25. Arenas averaged 30.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.3 steals against the Bulls this season. Hinrich was Chicago’s leading scorer against the Wizards, averaging 20.7 points.