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CHICAGO – Rare was the pundit who gave the Washington Wizards a chance in their first-round pairing against the Chicago Bulls earlier this month. Chicago was working without Derrick Rose and the traded Luol Deng yet again, but this was still nearly the same Bulls team that gutted out a first-round win over the favored Brooklyn Nets last season. The one that turned Joakim Noah into the second coming of Bill Walton. The one that somehow ran a 36-16 record to end the regular season based partially around the stylings of D.J Augustin.
No, the Wizards were too young, too flighty, too inexperienced and just plain not good enough – apparently – to compete with The Bulls That Never Quit. And yet, within the span of five grueling, often excruciating playoff games, the Wizards have turned into the giant killers. Even if Chicago probably shouldn’t have ever been termed a “giant” to begin with.
Washington downed Chicago, 75-69, in Game 5 on Tuesday night, winning the first-round series in a run that seemed less surprising as the series drew on. Washington once again ran out to an early 23-15 advantage in the first quarter and withstood the typical Chicago run in the second frame. Once again, versatile Washington center Nene was the force that put the Wizards over the top; he returned from a one-game suspension to toss in 20 points in 39 minutes, while also covering all angles on the interior – Chicago absolutely could not score in the paint, and the typical passing lanes that dotted the Bulls’ successful regular-season run to the East’s fourth seed were absent all series.
And for those who kept waiting for the Wizards, that inconsistent crew that seemed to pair wins with losses all season at the strangest times, to fall apart? That’ll have to wait until the second round. Or even later.
“I kept telling them,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said following the win, “I want you to be the desperate ones.”
Wittman has been preaching as much all season, sometimes to no avail, but for five strong games, including Washington’s Game 3 defeat, the Wizards followed through. The often beleaguered coach, working in his first playoff series as a head man, credited young guards John Wall and Bradley Beal for fighting their way through ups and downs that may have downed them in the regular season.
“I wasn’t concerned that this would be too big a stage for them.” Wittman revealed after the series win. Because both youngsters shook off shooting troubles (a combined 13 of 32 on the night) to hit several daggers off broken plays or offensive rebounds, the Wizards coach concluded that “they were a little different than other 18- or 19-year-olds.” Even if they have since moved on to the relative winter years of their early 20s.
Washington had help. Playoff series aren’t often closed out with a 72-point night from the victors.
Chicago was gassed, and Bulls center Joakim Noah was obviously pained by a right knee injury that he shook off detailing after the game. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau confided that Joakim had been bothered by a knee injury since the season’s midpoint, but it was hard to tell by his play until Game 5 – a contest where Noah still hauled in 18 rebounds and dished seven assists.
Once again, Chicago seemed outclassed until reserves Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin came onto the floor; but Augustin missed nine of 10 shots and fouled four times, and despite Gibson’s defensive presence, he missed seven of 10 looks and had four turnovers before badly spraining his left ankle four minutes into the fourth quarter.
That allowed starting forward Carlos Boozer to enter the game, playing his first fourth quarter minutes in months, contributing the sort of play that resulted in a chorus of boos directed at him in the contest’s final minute.
Boozer hit his first shot off the bench, but followed up by missing his next two and turning the ball over. With an injured Noah contesting shots and boxing out his own man, Boozer stood idly by while the Wizards grabbed offensive rebound after offensive rebound – eight in total during the fourth quarter. Unless Chicago goes on a rampant bout of cheapness, the team will likely waive the final year of Boozer’s $16.8 million contract for 2014-15 under the amnesty provision, possibly making this Boozer’s final game as a Bull. Sadly, his play late in the contest, and overall (ten points on 4-of-12 shooting, horrid defense) was a proper way to go out.
This isn’t about the plucky Bulls coming back to earth, though. Washington coalesced in this series, overcoming offensive fits in the face of the NBA’s second-best defense of the regular season to remain consistent in both its execution and effort. None of the Wizards players wanted to give a season-long post-mortem on a 2013-14 campaign that could stretch for a few more weeks following the win on Tuesday night, and that’s understandable.
It is worth crediting this young group, though, featuring a 23 and 20-year pair of backcourt mates, an often-injured pivotal big man, and a cast of role players that some once thought overpaid and unreliable.
“We knew it was going to be a bloodfight,” Wittman disclosed following his team’s win, but if his Wizards stayed desperate throughout his team’s five-game first-round turn, the head coach told his previously-unheralded team that they “can wear another team down.”
In this case, Chicago. The Bulls know all about wearing other teams down, but they’ve taught the rest of the league too well. The Wizards were too eager a pupil.
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