CHICAGO – The Chicago Bulls aren’t exactly world-beaters. With Derrick Rose sidelined for the season, nobody is confusing this team for a championship contender in 2014, but teams should still be warned against attempting to beat the Bulls at their own game. That’s exactly what the Washington Wizards did on Sunday night, though, pairing tough defense with a highly developed frontcourt attack to down Chicago, 102-93, stealing home-court advantage and Game 1 of their first-round playoff series along the way.
Chicago was up by as many as 13 points in the third quarter before Washington started chipping away at the lead using the same hallmarks that made the first half a competitive back and forth. The Wizards ran the offense through Nene, the oft-injured but versatile big man with seven years of playoff experience under his 31-year-old belt. He finished with 24 points, his third-highest output of the season at the exact right time, tossing in eight rebounds and several hockey assists before fouling out just before the final buzzer.
In a way, Nene mimicked what Bulls center Joakim Noah has done for most of the season, running the team’s offense from the high post, sometimes taking his own guards out of the action along the way. Nene didn’t approach Joakim’s sometimes-gaudy assist totals in Game 1; he finished with only three in 35 minutes of play (his longest run since late February), but he initiated his team’s attack, leading to a stellar 102 points in the face of the NBA’s second-best regular-season defense.
The Wizards obviously made Noah (who finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and four assists) a priority on both ends. The team attacked him defensively in the first half, going to Nene repeatedly in the low post, and took him out of his usual attack offensively. Guards Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin were forced to run Chicago’s offense in more possessions than they’re typically used to, the Bulls did not have their flow and spacing that has been typical of Chicago’s setup since January, and the squad’s fourth-quarter offense was an abject mess.
Chicago scored just 18 points in the final frame, with even those numbers somewhat trumpeted up by the late-game intentional foul-fest and extended possession count. The team turned it over six times and had repeated looks around the basket that had no business of going in – and didn’t.
“Flipping the ball up,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau admonished following the game, “that’s not going to do it in the playoffs.”
Hinrich and Augustin routinely were forced in trying to finish at the rim as the team’s typical Noah-led offense broke down, and neither replicated their solid first half run – when Hinrich contributed 10 points and Augustin nailed eight of eight free throws.
Chicago had its chances. The team missed 15 of 20 three-point attempts in the loss, with Augustin failing to connect on his four chances and Mike Dunleavy missing several open looks (though shooting a quite good 3-for-8 overall from long range). Following the loss coach Tom Thibodeau talked up his team’s failure to make pinpoint passes while running its offense, and several times, unprompted, he chided his team for losing its composure during what was at times an inconsistently called game for both teams.
“We can’t allow frustration,” Thibodeau pointed out, “to get in the way of what we do.”
This can’t take away from the Wizards, though, who clearly came into Game 1 with the unstated intent of taking Chicago’s big men out of their respective games while initiating Nene early and often. Nene denied as much following the win, pointing out that this was merely “their game,” but the Wizards didn’t resemble the sort of squad that relied heavily on a perimeter approach during the regular season. John Wall missed 10 of 14 shots from the field, but Thibodeau credited his ability to contribute “in a lot of ways besides scoring the ball.” And Washington’s defense remained predictably stout, only a barrage of free throws helped Chicago top 50 points in the first half of the contest.
Washington is this good. The team finished with just four fewer wins than Chicago in the regular season, the squad boasts a top ten defense, and the question as to the extent of the impact that Nene would have on this series as he returns from injury appears to have been answered. One should still expect a long series as these teams roll along -- Tom Thibodeau probably won’t remove himself from the tape room for more than a quick nap between Sunday night and Tuesday’s Game 2 -- but this is what the Wizards are capable of.
They’re capable of more. And in a repeat of 2005 Washington triumph over a fourth-seeded Chicago team in the first round, if the Wizards keep this up the team could find itself in the second round of the playoffs for just the third time since 1982.
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