When the NBA playoffs began, it seemed like we could count on the Eastern Conference being pared to Indiana-Chicago and Brooklyn-Miami. Of those four, only the Miami Heat have lived up to advance billing. The Nets might still advance, but are locked in a 2-2 fight with the Toronto Raptors. The Pacers have fallen apart and trail the Atlanta Hawks 3-2.
Now, I suppose we might have predicted Brooklyn’s struggles—they are the lower-seeded team after all. And in spite of Indiana’s second-half slide, this current meltdown was beyond anyone’s capacity to predict. The series that combined being a real shock, yet one within the framework of reality was what the Washington Wizards just did to the Chicago Bulls.
The Wizards beat the Bulls last night 75-69 to take the first-round series in five games. When you looked at this series in advance, it seemed as though Washington had the talent advantage, though that was by no means obvious. It also seemed that Chicago had the advantages in toughness, playoff mojo and homecourt, all of which did seem to be obvious.
Yet, Washington not only won this series, they won in every way imaginable. They beat Chicago at their own hard-nosed game, and the beat them playing a more aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball. The Wizards beat the Bulls up front and they beat them in the backcourt. Washington beat Chicago early and they beat them late. Above all, they beat them in the Windy City, sweeping all three games played in Chicago.
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Here’s a rundown on the four Washington victories and the array of methods they used to win…
Game 1 (102-93): Against the rugged Chicago defense, second-best in the NBA, Washington shoots 48 percent form the floor. The frontcourt is in control, as Nene goes for 24 points/8 rebounds, and Marcin Gortat posts a 15/13. It overcomes a balanced Bulls’ lineup, that has seven players score between 11-16 points, but no one can step up. The Wizards come from behind in the fourth quarter to win.
Game 2 (101-99, OT): Another fourth-quarter rally keys this win. This time it’s two-guard Bradly Beal, who drills four treys and scores 26 points, with the team again shooting 48 percent. It’s enough to overcome a Bulls’ lineup that gets big, step-it-up games from Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin, all of whom go for 20-plus, but the Chicago attack eventually lacks balance.
Game 4 (98-89): Playing at home, Washington only shoots 41 percent, but makes up for it by taking excellent care of the basketball, disrupting the Chicago offense and winning turnovers by a 16-6 margin. Trevor Ariza pours in 30 points, and the Wizards take control early. They lead by ten after one quarter, fifteen at the break and twenty as the fourth quarter begins.
Game 5 (75-69): Chicago, fighting for their lives at home, forces an ugly game. Washington responds and holds the Bulls to 33 percent shooting from their floor, their best team defense of the series. John Wall leads the way with 24 points and Nene knocks in 20, as they work an outside-inside combo. The Wizards start strong, let the Bulls tie it up by halftime and then take control in the third quarter.
Is there any way Washington didn’t put the smackdown on Chicago? And what does it mean going forward? We’ll discuss second-round series matchups as they all settle in, but for now it seems apparent that the Wizards have to be expected to reach the conference finals. They’ll either get homecourt against Atlanta or play collapsing Indiana.
That would set up Washington with a likely conference finals battle with Miami. Do the Wizards have the talent to beat the Heat? Yes, they do. They have the inside personnel to exploit Miami’s weakness, and the Wall/Beal backcourt can matchup. But do they have the playoff mojo necessary to win this kind of series. No, they don’t. Then again, we’ve heard that before.