CHICAGO – Once again, it appears as if the rest of the NBA has caught up to the postseason version of the Chicago Bulls, those noted regular-season thrashers. And the Washington Wizards appear to have turned a corner that could put them in the second round for just the third time since Ronald Reagan’s first term in the town they play in.
The Wizards will return to that home with a 2-0 series lead over Chicago, following their gritty 101-99 overtime win on Tuesday evening. The Wizards erased a 10-point deficit to force overtime and once again encourage Chicago into moving away from its offensive bread and butter – a decidedly modest bread and butter, to be sure, but one that helped the Bulls secure the first-round home-court advantage they relinquished during Sunday’s Game 1.
To be sure, Washington earned that home-court turnaround, utilizing a defense that ranked in the top 10 during the regular season to pressure Chicago into tough, guard-dominated offensive play. Because Chicago’s guards aren’t exactly dominant, the Bulls couldn’t respond down the stretch of a miserable fourth quarter and overtime turn, going without a field goal for over eight minutes during that run, looking helpless as the Wizards once again made Joakim Noah’s ball distribution an afterthought.
The Wizards’ young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal didn’t exactly shoot the lights out, but in comparison to the duo’s 7-for-25 mark in Washington’s Game 1 win, the pair somewhat lit it up. The two combined to score 42 points on 15-of-35 shooting, with Beal managing 11 fourth-quarter points and Wall nailing two clutch free throws in overtime. Meanwhile, Nene sustained his Chicago-crippling all-around play from Game 1, hitting for 17 points and seven rebounds including six killer points in the five-minute overtime frame.
Washington’s relentless attack showed no sign of letup in the wake of a Game 1 win, it raced out to a 17-point first half lead, once again forcing Noah away from the ball offensively and taking smart advantages of beneficial matchups on the perimeter. D.J. Augustin had to play hero for Chicago, which says more about the Bulls than they’d like, basically pulling up by his lonesome for four 3-pointers in the first half in five tries, helping drag his team back below a double-digit deficit.
From there, things got dicey with the referees. Inconsistent fouls on both ends abounded, with the Joey Crawford-led referee crew causing much consternation from either bench as the whistles and odd non-calls piled up. A key play late in the fourth quarter saw Bulls big man Taj Gibson dive for what appeared to be a loose ball that he secured, but his pleas for a whistle (“I said ‘time out’ three times,” Gibson said after the game) went ignored. The Wizards won what appeared to be a tilting jump ball with the game tied and just over eight seconds on the clock, with Bradley Beal going on to miss what could have been a game-winner just before the buzzer.
By the time the extra frame hit, Chicago was gassed. Washington’s active big men continued to keep Noah away from the ball, which contributed to Augustin and Kirk Hinrich’s 3-of-14 combined mark from the field in the fourth quarter and overtime. Nene kept taking advantage of good perimeter looks, which helped build a six-point Washington lead in overtime. Still, Chicago had its chances in the game’s final moments.
Following an offensive foul on Wall in the game’s final seconds and down two points, Hinrich was afforded a good look at the basket on a drive with 2 1/2 seconds left. Hinrich, who went out of his way to point out that he wasn’t fatigued late in the contest, missed the layup but earned the foul with 2.6 ticks left. Admitting that he was upset that he “should have made the layup,” Kirk missed the first freebie, necessitating an intentional miss from the line with the Bulls down two. The carom ended up in the Wizards' mitts, and they escaped with a 2-0 run in Chicago, the team’s fourth win against the Bulls in five 2013-14 tries.
The Bulls were their typical selves after the game trying to spin the loss forward, crediting Washington’s knockout defense for both the initial 17-point hole on Tuesday and the Wizards’ 2-0 series lead. To a man, the players didn’t exactly look despondent, just well aware of their station – the group knows a tough defensive squad when it sees one. It saw one in Game 1, and it couldn’t overcome one despite 53 minutes’ worth of chances in Game 2.
Chicago will still have its chances as it heads to the nation’s capital. This team has overcome quite a bit in 2013-14, and at times the Wizards (who had the second-most road wins in the East this season) have looked like a better team away from the Beltway. Only three NBA teams have dropped the first two contests at home and come back to win the series, but Chicago isn’t like most NBA teams. In ways both good and bad.
Along the way, the Wizards have discovered they’ve grown into a damn good playoff basketball team. One that utilizes active big men and young guards to great effect, one that has more than earned its 2-0 series lead.
Now that the pressure is on, and the home crowd is expecting great things? We’ll see how good these Washington Wizards can be.
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