By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
CHICAGO – In a span of two games, on the road in a tough building, the Washington Wizards have shifted the conversation from how their long-awaited taste of the postseason probably wouldn’t last more than one round to where the heck this team was all season.
When you look at what the Wizards have done in grabbing their 2-0 lead over the Chicago Bulls in the best-of-seven series and apply it to the 82 games that preceded this, it suddenly seems like their 44-38 record and certain middling stats (17th in offensive rating, 20th in rebounding, 25th in foul shooting) represent some shameful underachieving.
Consider some of the things they accomplished on their stay in the Windy City, which wrapped with the 101-99 overtime playoff nightcap:
- Overcame a 13-point deficit in one of the most boisterous road gyms in the league to grab the series opener.
- Toyed with Chicago’s vaunted defense at times, as in outscoring the Bulls 61-38 across the final quarter of Game 1 and the first 12 minutes of Game 2.
- Kept their focus through some physical shenanigans first between Kirk Hinrich and Bradley Beal, later between Trevor Ariza and Joakim Noah, without getting intimidated or spinning out of control.
- Clamped down defensively again when it mattered most. The Wizards limited Chicago to just 12 points, total, in the final six minutes of the two fourth quarters.
- Squandered an early 17-point lead in Game 2, fell behind by 10 with seven minutes left, yet caught the Bulls with a 14-4 run to close regulation, Beal scoring nine of those Washington points.
- Pressured Chicago just as hard at the end as they did at the beginning, limiting the home team to 2-for-9 shooting in the overtime while generating just enough offense of their own (Nene, six points)
Had the Wizards played that way all season, they might have, what … pushed toward 50 victories, which would have been good enough for the No. 3 seed? Put some heat on the Heat in the Southwest Division? Made life a lot easier on their coaches, their fans and themselves by locking up their postseason berth sooner, with a little less late-season drama?
Of course, this team isn’t that team. And vice-versa. The Wizards apparently had to go through the trials of their first 82 to prepare for the moments to which they’ve risen in Games 1 and 2.
“We’re a different team,” Ariza said. “We’re a team that learned from our mistakes. We’re learning to play hard and play through everything. Like tonight, the game, I guess, was a little chippy. We didn’t let that rattle us.”
Ariza, the small forward whose volunteer defensive work on the Bulls’ smaller shifty-quick D.J. Augustin helped to limit Chicago’s scoring options, continued: “We’re definitely more locked in. We’re paying more attention to detail in shootarounds and practice. We’re talking more – communication is a big part of being a good team. And our 1 [John Wall] and 2 [Beal], they’re maturing.”
The Wizards have gone from a 25-27 team at the All-Star break to that unpredictably dangerous bunch that Miami looks wise to avoid as long as possible. By slipping into the East’s No. 2 seed, the Heat kept Washington at bay as long as possible, the Bulls-Wizards winner due to face whichever team emerges from Pacers-Hawks.
Yes, it helps to have Nene healthy, back from his sprained left knee. And granted, tightening the screws on Chicago’s often-gasping attack isn’t the toughest task for a legitimate NBA defense. But somebody was out there sticking to the Bulls’ best weapons.
“That team is under the radar,” Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson said. “They’re a great defensive team. It shows, how poised they were come late [in the game].”
Late in the season, too. As recently as March, the Wizards were giving up 101.4 points per game. In April, that got whacked down to 92.9. Take away the overtime Tuesday and the Bulls have averaged 92.0 in the two games while shooting 42.6 percent. And Chicago has been nearly choked off at times, going six or seven minutes without a field goal.
Stacking up defensive stops like that has a cumulative effect, coach Randy Wittman said.
“It’s going to be easier even when we show ‘em the tape,” Wittman said. “When you get six, seven stops in a row when you’re down 10, that’s how you can win the game.
“We keep track of it throughout the game – how many stops we get in a row. My coaches will tell me what it is, and if it’s one or two in the course of a game, that’s not very good. We got it going there at the end of the fourth quarter where I think it was six or seven. That energizes those guys too – they take pride in it.
And lo and behold, Washington is up 2-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series for the first time since 1979.