Posts Tagged ‘Nene’

Wall managing to move Wizards ahead

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Sans Nene, Wizards roll to 3-1 lead over Bulls

WASHINGTON — Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal hit the shots. John Wall hit the open man.

Trevor Booker and Marcin Gortat and Martell Webster ran the floor. John Wall ran the show.

Funny thing is, Wall was far more flashy and flamboyant, far more noticeable on Friday in Game 3 — double crossover dribbles that left defenders cross-eyed, one-handed slam dunks on breakaways, even a missed layup following a 360-degree spin that might have been the most breathtaking move of the night.

Of course, the Wizards lost Game 3 and they needed a different Wall on Sunday, one who was less soloist standing apart from the orchestra and more conductor standing in front of it.

No-no Nene. No-no problem, because Wall managed the way the Wizards played at both ends of the floor the way a surgeon manages an operating room.

“That’s a good word,” said Wizards coach Randy Wittman. “That’s exact word I just used in there with the team. I think this series he’s managed the game.

“He understands who needs the ball, where the need it, who has got it going, where to attack and be aggressive himself and then, the most important thing for us against this team, is taking care of the ball. When we have six turnovers for the game and two in the second half, if we can get a shot every time down the floor, I’ll be really pleased with where we are at in the game.”

Where the Wizards are at following their 98-89 win in Game 4 is holding onto a 3-1 lead over the Bulls and on the cusp of their first playoff series win since in nine years. In fact, Washington as a franchise has not held a 3-1 lead in any series since the 1978 Eastern Conference finals over San Antonio when the Bullets went on to win their only NBA championship.

Let’s not get too far ahead in the hyperbole since the Wizards have not yet even closed out Chicago. But the majestic learning curve is evident for the 23-year-old point guard in his fourth professional season getting his first taste of the playoffs.

This was a day full of emotion and import for the Wizards and they treated it from the start almost like it was a Game 7 with no margin for error.

“It was a must-win for us,” said Gortat. “Because if we lost this game, it means that winning the first two on the road in Chicago meant nothing.”

The were playing without their rolling ball of thunder power forward Nene, who got himself suspending for head-butting and trying to twist Jimmy Butler’s head like a grape off the stem on Friday night.

It was a game and an atmosphere so big that 57-year-old team owner Ted Leonsis got into the act by wearing a Nene jersey at courtside. It was a situation and a loss to their lineup so big that the Wizards had to make up for it by making all the small plays.

There was Gortat, scrapping, battling, hustling to keep balls alive off the glass even when he couldn’t make layups. There was Ariza doing everything he could to be disruptive at the defensive end when he wasn’t filling up the bucket for 30 points. There was veteran Andre Miller spotting Webster sealing off a smaller defender D.J. Augustin and finding him with a perfect lob pass. There was Drew Gordon slapping a sure dunk out of the hands of the Bulls’ Carlos Boozer. There was Booker making a desperate fourth quarter save by leaping over the end line and heaving the ball back over his head to Wall. There was Wall jumping into passing lanes for steals and deflections.

This is the way it often happens with the young prodigies, who have talent oozing out of their pores, but have to harness it for the sake of the team. In four NBA seasons, we have seen what Wall can do. Now he is learning what and how he must do it if his team is going to advance. It’s why a young Isiah Thomas used to go to the NBA Finals as a spectator to mine the nuggets of how Magic Johnson and Larry Bird became champions. It’s all a process.

“John is learning what we are playing for and understanding now what we are playing about,” said the veteran center Gortat. “You can’t trip in the playoffs too many times.

“Hopefully the playoff situation will teach these guys — John and Bradley — something and next year in the regular season they are going to perform like that every game. Because it really shows what they’re made of. These two guys are extremely talented, extremely competitive and hopefully they will play like that every game.

“I see the difference. John especially is learning what it means to lead. There are many nights when we will need him to score and do all of those great things. But every night we need him to be in charge.”

Managing to move ahead.

No-no Nene, but Wizards still confident

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nene suspended for one game after head-butt

WASHINGTON — It’s one thing to stand toe-to-toe against the raw physicality of the Bulls in the playoffs.

It’s a whole different challenge when you’re missing your big toe.

But with power forward Nene suspended by the NBA for head-butting and grabbing Jimmy Butler around the neck with both hands on Friday night, coach Randy Wittman says the Wizards are still on solid footing.

“We’re more than capable with who we have on this team,” he said a short time before the suspension was announced. “That’s just it. It could happen to anybody. … Somebody could come in sick and somebody’s gotta step up. That’s cliche, I know, but that’s the way it is.”

The Wizards had already completed their Saturday practice when the suspension was made official by Rod Thorn, NBA president, basketball operations.

Nene was unavailable for comment.

The incident occurred with 8:28 left in the fourth quarter of Chicago’s 100-97 win in Game 3, which sliced the Washington lead in the series to 2-1.

After scoring on a fast-break layup, Nene turned to run back up the court and lifted his left arm to clip Butler with a chicken wing as he ran by. Butler objected verbally and reached out with his right hand to give Nene a shove in the side.

As the two players stepped toward each other, the 6-foot-11 Nene leaned down and pressed his head against Butler’s. Then Nene clasped both of his hands around Butler’s neck.

When asked if he thought anything he saw merited a suspension, Wittman replied: “No, I don’t.”

Regardless, the Wizards have to play without their big man, who is averaging 17 points, 6.3 rebounds per game and has done an outstanding job of negating the play in the paint by the Bulls’ Joakim Noah.

The Wizards do have plenty experience playing without Nene as he missed 29 games during the regular season. Washington was 1-6 without him when Nene was shelved for two games with a strained left calf and five games with a sore right foot early in the season. But they were a more successful 12-10 without Nene in the lineup when he suffered a sprained left knee.

“Obviously, it’s gonna be a huge loss for us,” said center Marcin Gortat. “We played without Nene over the 82 games and the situation is totally different then. But we’ll see. We’ll see.

“You gotta bring it. You gotta bring it. There’s an opportunity for me to play bigger role. The inside offense is gonna go through me. I just gotta perform. I gotta be on top of my game.”

Wittman said the last thing he wants his team to do is react to the Game 3 incident by taking the edge off their game and backing down from Chicago’s rough-and-tumble style.

“I told our players, you can be confrontational and do it in a way that doesn’t cost you an ejection,” Wittman said. “We’ve seen it the first two games and nobody’s been thrown out. It’s a matter of making sure in those situations that you keep your composure. It gets physical out there. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving and talking and … it’s a fine line of crossing the line that gets you to the point of ejection or not.

“We just gotta make sure we keep our composure in that area. I don’t want them stepping back at all from a physicality standpoint. Not at all. It just reaches a line and we got to know where that line is.”

Gortat nodded his head in agreement.

“X’s and O’s are one thing,” he said. “At the end of the day physicality is the will of winning the basketball game. … There’s a time to do X’s and O’s and a time to fight and scrap and just play the way they play us. Unfortunately, things went wrong for us.”

The Wizards did manage to duck the double-whammy of losing Gortat as well. Video replays showed the center, who was out of the game at the time, leaving the bench and stepping slightly onto the court when the scuffle broke out.

According to NBA rules, any player who leaves the bench area during a fight on the court is subject to suspension.

“It’s not like I was running and yelling and screaming,” Gortat said. “I was just standing there and had no idea what was going on. At some point actually I realized I was on the court, I started taking steps back because I was like, ‘I don’t think I supposed to be here.’ So I started walking back. I was just shocked what was going on on the court at that time.”

Backup forward Trevor Booker started 45 games this season, many of them when Nene was injured. He was one of the closest players to Nene and Butler when they locked up.

“I didn’t know how far it would go. Unfortunately it went too far where he got ejected,” Booker said. “Somebody else has got to step up. He’s a big piece, but we got some games without him that we won.

“We lost focus, but we’ll get it back tomorrow. You got to do what you got to do.”

Morning Shootaround — April 26


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played April 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Will Nene and/or Gortat play? | LeBron seeks equal treatment | Lakers sticking with D’Antoni | Westbrook’s brother still rankled

No. 1: Will Nene and/or Gortat play? — Losing Nene down the stretch of Game 3 was bad enough for the Washington Wizards. It very well might have cost them the game, a 3-0 advantage in the best-of-seven series and so much momentum heading into Sunday’s Game 4 that the Bulls might have licked their wounds and started planning for summer. Instead, Chicago didn’t have to worry about the big guy who had been the Wizards’ X factor in the first two games and its own bigs, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, had an easier time navigating foul trouble. The biggest concerns now for Washington are whether a) Nene’s ejection ended it or whether he’ll face a suspension from Game 4, and b) center Marcin Gortat will get whacked for leaving the bench area in the heat of the moment. In the immediate aftermath, Brandon Parker assessed the situation in the Washington Post’s Wizards Insider blog:

What happened after that and how the NBA office will levy punishment has now become as great of a concern as how the Wizards respond following their first loss of these young playoffs.

It’s a given that Nene will at least be fined for his inflammatory role in Friday’s altercation, but whether or not he is suspended is up to the NBA. But Nene might not be the only one in trouble. There was some debate as to whether Marcin Gortat left the bench area during the scuffle. Since the Bulls were charged with calling a timeout immediately following Nene’s basket, Gortat, along with all the bench players and coaches, would be allowed to come onto the floor. But should the NBA deem that Gortat was making his way onto the court before or during the moment the timeout was called, the Wizards center would automatically be suspended for one game, according to NBA rules.

Both are judgement calls but by comparison, take the case of Charlotte’s Josh McRoberts. In Game 2 versus Miami, the Bobcats forward threw a forearm to the nose of LeBron James but rather than being whistled for a flagrant foul during the game or being suspended afterward, McRoberts was fined $20,000.

Playing without one or both of their starting big men could obviously be catastrophic for the Wizards in what’s now a must-win Game 4. Playing with one or both of them still doesn’t leave the Wizards in the clear, as the Bulls are apparently intent on trying to mentally rattle and discourage Washington’s players in what’s sure to be an intense environment.

***

No. 2: LeBron seeks equal treatment — Retaliation is officially off the table, at least according to what the Miami Heat players and coaches are saying in the wake of Josh McRoberts‘ flagrant-2 foul against LeBron James in Game 2 of the Miami-Charlotte first-round series. McRoberts didn’t get ejected after putting an elbow to the throat of the Heat superstar as he attacked the rim, but the foul was upgraded the next day with a $20,000 fine attached. Instead of retribution, James spoke about getting a fair shake from the referees. His view, as related by Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, is that he takes more hits because of his ball dominance and foes get away with more because he is so big and strong. Instead of “star treatment,” in other words, James feels he has been enduring Shaq treatment:

James wouldn’t say Friday whether McRoberts should have been suspended, but said “it should have been a Flagrant 2 at that point in the game.”

“What frustrated me is when I watch other games. [In Thursday's Warriors-Clippers game], it was three flagrant fouls called that got checked [on replay]. My foul didn’t even get checked, and it was a crucial point of the game. … I don’t cry for fouls. If the game is played and [called] how it’s supposed to be, I’m OK with it.”

James added: “I take a lot of hard fouls. I understand that. Guys try to stop me from getting three-point plays. We all know the difference between a basketball foul and a non-basketball foul.”

“I already know there’s going to be a headline tomorrow: ‘LeBron is crying for fouls.’ I don’t want that. It’s not about me wanting fouls or wanting to be pampered. I’m going to be my aggressive self and get to the free-throw line and put pressure on their defense.”

So does he simply want to be treated like everyone else?

“I’m not going to be treated like everyone else,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been treated like everybody else.”

Retaliating is not an option for two reasons, James said: “Every time we hit back, we get suspended or get fined. We tried that tactic. It don’t [work] for us.”

And also: “The game is different. If this was the 1980s, I would come out swinging. It’s not. I mean too much to our team. I can’t do that. Me being out of the game hurts us more than it would hurt the other team. I get frustrated at times.”

***

No. 3: Lakers sticking with D’AntoniWhile their former coach and ring-collecting leader, Phil Jackson, settles in and sifts through his coaching candidates in New York, the Los Angeles Lakers face a situation of their own involving coach Mike D’Antoni, who just lead the team through a forgettable failed season. According to Mark Heisler, venerable NBA columnist who has relocated from the Los Angeles Times to the Orange County Register, that situation essentially has been resolved: D’Antoni will be back next season. Heisler writes with authority about the Lakers’ mess and their limited options for 2014-15 overall – basically a strategy of signing players to one-year deal and keeping their salary-cap powder dry for the free-agent classes of 2015 and 2016. He does include one juicy tidbit about L.A., if it gets lucky in the lottery, possibly offering their first-round pick this spring to Minnesota for All-Star forward Kevin Love. Here‘s some Heisler:

Ready for Mike D’Antoni III? After 10 days of soul searching, the key figures in Lakers management are agreed on bringing back D’Antoni for a third season as coach, a source with knowledge of the deliberations told the Register.

Keeping D’Antoni, of course, would be unpopular among Lakers fans, united in their desire to see him fired and Jim Buss resign.

The Lakers aren’t commenting, but Jimbo’s not planning on leaving. With Pau Gasol making no secret of his dissatisfaction and Kobe Bryant reportedly in favor of a change, D’Antoni was widely expected to be fired.

But one thing you’ve got to love about the Lakers – I do, anyway – they don’t always do the easy thing.

D’Antoni took himself out of the running for the Marshall University coaching job last week, which went to his brother, Dan.

However, reports from West Virginia that the Lakers told Mike he was returning are incorrect.

D’Antoni decided he didn’t want to return to Marshall, where he once starred, in any case.

The Lakers have yet to inform D’Antoni of anything, but they intend to keep him, absolving him of blame for the 27-55 finish without Bryant and Steve Nash for 141 of a possible 162 games.

Nor are they discomfited by Gasol’s announcement on his website. (“I’ve never concealed the fact that D’Antoni’s style doesn’t suit my game. … I don’t know if my decision will be swayed by whether Mike stays or leaves. Obviously, the coach is a very important factor for any team.”) Jeanie Buss, who noted recently, “I’m the boss,” is continuing her preference to leave basketball decisions to the basketball people.

Jim is aligned with GM Mitch Kupchak, a steadfast D’Antoni defender emerging as an ever-stronger figure with a multi-year extension in the wake of their misadventures.

***

No. 4: Westbrook’s brother still rankledWhile Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook prevailed on his brother Ray to delete a Tweet from late Thursday night suggesting Thunder head coach Scott Brooks be dumped, he didn’t exactly change his younger sibling’s mind. After practice Friday, Westbrook told reporters: “I took care of that. We don’t conduct business like that. Scotty and me got a great relationship.” But Ray Westbrook, while complying, wasn’t necessarily on board with the damage control, according to a blog by The Oklahoman sports columnist Barry Tramel:

[We] got back to our hotel after the game, probably around 1:30 a.m., and decided to get something to eat. So we walked the few blocks to Blues City Cafe, which is open from 11 a.m. to 5 a.m. And on the way, we ran into a certain Ray Westbrook.

Yes, the same Ray Westbrook whose big brother plays a little hoops for the Thunder, and the same Ray Westbrook who in the middle of Game 3 tweeted that the Thunder needed a new coach.

Ray is a friendly fellow, and we asked him about the tweet. He said the Thunder already had reached out to him to express its displeasure, but he was unapologetic. “That’s how I felt,” he said. “If you don’t like it, don’t follow me.”

Of course, by the next morning, Ray Westbrook had apologized for the outburst. But it’s pretty safe to assume he didn’t mean it.

Butler keeps his head to keep Bulls alive

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Dunleavy leads Bulls to Game 3 win over Wizards

WASHINGTON — Give Jimmy Butler credit for keeping his head.

No small feat when a guy the size of Nene is trying to rip it off.

Another day in the playoffs, another night of pushing, shoving, elbowing and jersey pulling.

All that had changed from the first two games was the location to the nation’s capital, where the Wizards and Bulls resumed the impersonation of Republicans and Democrats playing down and dirty.

Then the lid blew off the pot.

Nene had just scored on a breakaway layup when he turned to run back up the floor on defense and happened to reach out with his left arm and clip Butler with a chicken wing.

Butler responded with a one-handed shove in the side and then things got interesting.

The 6-foot-11 Nene leaned in first to put his forehead squarely against Butler. Then he reached up and clamped his right hand around the back of Butler’s neck. Then with his left hand, he tried to take Butler down.

Nene was ejected with 8:28 left in in a two-point game, which left the Wizards vulnerable, Butler inspired and the Bulls quite suddenly empowered.

“Just two people wanting to win the game competing and I guess he gave me one of those and I didn’t like it,” Butler said. “So it is what it is.”

What it was in the immediate aftermath was a chance for Butler to take a handoff from Joakim Noah, run around a screen and bury a critical 3-pointer.

“Whoooo!” said Noah. “Jimmy, that was a big 3.”

Maybe if this wrestling match goes the distance, it will just get lost in the all the muck. But for now, how Butler handled the whole affair and the way he scored 11 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter was exactly what the Bulls needed to get themselves going to close out a game.

“I knew I had to [stay composed]. I didn’t want to get ejected like he did or nothing like that. But I can’t back down from anybody. That’s not in me. “I didn’t think it was that serious, but obviously he thought it was. I was just saying, ‘Watch all that.’ It was uncalled for. I’m not mad at him for him. He’s competitive. I respect the guy.”

Nene wanted to put it all behind him.

“You can’t control when you play physical, things get hot,” he said. “It’s over. The whole team is thinking about Game 4 and stepping up for real in a big series.

“It’s over. You need to move [on]. That’s what I’m doing. Now we need to come here [and] play the right way in Game 4 and forget about what happened.”

But what happened could have been the spark to restore the confidence back in the Bulls, who had let fourth quarter leads slip away in both of the home losses to open the series and none of them were really surprised that emotions boiled over.

“I think it was gonna happen eventually,” said Bulls forward Taj Gibson. “How the battle is being played, every time down in the paint. I’m surprised it didn’t happen in the first two games. It’s playoff basketball. You got to be smart. You can’t put your hands on people.

“It gets chippy, but you gotta be smart. You can get ejected. You can get suspended for a game. You gotta keep your hands to yourself.”

There might be some cause for concern by the Wizards if the NBA office decides to take a further look at what happened. In these kinder and gentler times of the 21st century, a suspension of Nene is not something that can be entirely dismissed.

For the Bulls, what mattered is the first step back. They knew falling into a 3-0 hole would have sealed their fate.

“We got heart,” Gibson said. “We care. It doesn’t matter who believes in us. We believe in each other. We believe in what the locker room says. And the locker room says we have a chance. We’re going to fight to the last blow.”

But keep their heads like Jimmy Butler when it matters.

Bulls out of scoring options, out of gas?

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Taj Gibson talks to the media after the Bulls’ practice on Wednesday

A couple weeks ago, the Chicago Bulls were the team that no one in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket allegedly wanted to play.

In a matter of days, no one might have to.

Unless the Bulls find a way to generate offense late in games, unless they stop trying to beat Washington in three-and-a-half quarters while spotting the Wizards four, the grimiest, hardest-working team in basketball soon will be on extended vacation. For all its pluck, for all its spunk, Chicago is facing a hole as the series shifts to D.C. for Game 3 Friday every bit as big, historically, as losing an MVP (Derrick Rose) or trading away an All-Star (Luol Deng).

The Bulls overcame – maybe compensated for is more apt – the absences of Rose and Deng by shifting those guys’ responsibilities onto others and resolutely playing harder. But down 0-2 in this first-round series, they don’t really have any others left and they might be out of gears.

NBA past doesn’t bode well for the Bulls’ future, either. Only three teams in playoff history – the 1969 Lakers, ’94 Rockets and ’05 Mavericks – won a best-of-seven series after dropping the first two games at home. Houston finds itself in the same predicament against Portland at the moment, but never mind the company; the Bulls are coping with their own misery.

Their vaunted defense, with coach Tom Thibodeau barking orders and Joakim Noah as the newly minted Defensive Player of the Year, has been shredded for 101.5 points and the Wizards’ 48.1 field-goal percentage in two games. Despite opening double-digit leads in both, the Bulls have been outscored in the fourth quarter 51-34 while shooting 35.3 percent (12 of 34), and they missed seven of nine shots in Game 2’s overtime.

As far as seeking help from different sources, there have been no different sources. The bench is thin after Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin, and Thibodeau has coached accordingly: Of the series’ 505 available minutes so far, more than 95 percent (481:33) have been heaped on just seven guys.

Even that is misleading: Jimmy Butler (96:46, including all 53 Tuesday) and Noah (85:36) each has played nearly as much as forwards Carlos Boozer (45:22) and Mike Dunleavy (54:42) combined. Thibodeau has stuck with the rotation that earned Chicago a 36-14 record in the 2014 portion of the regular season. That means Dunleavy has logged less than 10 minutes in the fourth quarters and OT in this series and Boozer has amassed zero.

Because Boozer and Dunleavy are primarily offensive players, not playing them when the points get scarce late in games has focused heat on Thibodeau. To a lot of Bulls fans, it’s like trying to ride out a headache without uncapping the aspirin bottle. But Thibodeau is committed to the late-game lineup that worked so well for so long. And, hey, he knows Boozer and Dunleavy primarily are offensive players too.

“You have to work your way out of things,” Thibodeau said, almost by rote. “We have a lot of guys who have played well in the fourth quarter all year. … We have to do it collectively. And that’s really what we’ve done. When we lost Derrick and we lost Luol, that’s the makeup of our team.

“You can’t get wrapped up in the first two games other than you want to learn from what happened. Get ready for the next one. Don’t look ahead. That’s the way we’ve approached it all season. We’re not changing now.”

Trouble is, Washington has risen to its rare postseason occasion. The Wizards have been feistier at both ends. Defensively, they’re pressuring the ball and almost daring the Bulls’ non-shooters to shoot.

Noah, Chicago’s “point center,” has been attacked when he attempts to handle the ball, ignored if he’s shooting outside the restricted zone and squeezed when he sets up 18 feet from the basket, Wasington’s Nene crowding Noah to limit his passing angles and vision. Nene’s offense has the DPOY sweating and maybe a little rattled, with Games 1 and 2 sandwiching the award ceremony in Chicago with Noah’s entire family in town.

Augustin, this year’s Rose surrogate, has been a scoring godsend, but when 6-foot-8 Trevor Ariza volunteered to guard the smallish point guard down the stretch in Game 2, Augustin was done. He stayed stuck on 25 points over the final 13 minutes.

Wizards coach Randy Wittman even has made the more apparent and successful adjustments so far – in transferring scoring load from frontcourt (Nene, Marcin Gortat) to backcourt (John Wall, Bradley Beal), in deploying veteran backup Andre Miller in key old-school moments – and been rewarded twice. That hits Thibodeau right where his strength is, in the lab, in resiliency.

Consider this role-reversal quote from Gibson on Wednesday.

“We watched the film, it came down to we were like a fingernail short every time. Guys were diving for the balls, scrambling around, and they just made some great plays, playoff-style basketball I guess,” the Bulls’ sixth man said.

“[They are] a hungry team. … They go up, we go up, but the way they start the games off, the way they finish them, especially on defense, getting loose balls, scramble plays, rugged-basketball kind of style, that’s kind of our style if you think about it.”

Actually, it was the Bulls’ style until Saturday. Unless they get back to that in Game 3 and whatever beyond they can eke out, their postseason will become past season in a hurry.

Where was this Wizards team all season?

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Wizards stay perfect on Chicago’s home court in playoffs

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.

Wizards’ Wall, Beal grow up on the fly

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau looks ahead to Game 2

CHICAGO – John Wall and Bradley Beal have the talent necessary to compete with, maybe even defeat, the Chicago Bulls in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference series. They have the health, they have the stamina, they have the enthusiasm.

What the Washington Wizards’ young starting backcourt doesn’t have is playoff experience. And getting it on the fly against a salty Bulls team seemed to many like it might be asking too much. By the time the Wiz guards fully get it, folks figured, five, six or seven games – and four defeats – might have slipped away.

But that didn’t happen in the first postseason games of Wall’s and Beal’s career, their Game 1 victory Sunday at United Center. So there’s way less reason to think it would show up in Game 2 Tuesday or at any point as the series grinds on.

“A 20-year vet is going to have jitters, the first game of the playoffs,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said at the Wizards’ shootaround. “If you don’t, you’re not into the game. I thought our guys were in tune and ready to go. I don’t anticipate anything different [the rest of the way].”

If the “rest of the way” for the newbie Wizards were to take them all the way to The Finals, it would be like winning the Tour de France on training wheels. That they could even walk around the Bulls’ city for 48 hours wearing the yellow jersey was a triumph of its own.

“We’ve got great veteran guys and our young guys are mature for their age,” Wall, the 23-year-old point guard, said midday Tuesday. “Even though it was our first playoff game, we didn’t get rattled, we didn’t try to do it on our own. We stuck with the game concept and making the right plays. And even though me and Brad’s shots weren’t falling, we were staying aggressive and doing things at the defensive end to help us win.”

Wall and Beal did pester Chicago’s backcourt players, particularly reserve point guard D.J. Augustin, who missed 12 of his 15 shots and had three turnovers. The Wizards’ pair missed shots of their own – they were a combined 7-of-25 – but Wittman didn’t sweat their shot selection and both stayed active enough to have positive impacts.

How positive? They both were plus-11, tops in that category on either side. They combined for 13 assists, eight rebounds and 15-of-17 foul shooting, totaling 29 points.

It’s worth noting too that Chicago’s defense, as directed by coach Tom Thibodeau, paid enough attention to the potent guards that it opened up opportunities for big men Nene (24 points) and Marcin Gortat (15).

Beal, who won’t turn 21 for another two months, said he had heard about how different the playoffs are from the regular season, all that stuff about intensity and being scouted inside and out and never taking plays off. It all came true, he said, but it didn’t steamroll him or his buddy.

“You’re always going ot have nerves, of course, but at the same time, you’re just out there with four other guys on the floor playing against the opponent. You can’t focus on the crowd – you notice that they’re there – but at the same time, while you’re playing, it’s like you’re just playing in open gym. It’s like no one’s around.

“Hopefully we can come out and play more desperate. Like we’re down 0-1.”

Thibodeau wants Bulls in rebound shop

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau looks ahead to Game 2 vs. the Wizards

DEERFIELD, Ill. – A playoff loss at home is red meat to someone like Tom Thibodeau, coach of the Chicago Bulls, so in the 48 hours between Games 1 and 2 of the first-round series against Washington, he compiled “an endless list of things we didn’t do correctly.”

Thibodeau had neither the time nor the inclination to share such a list with media inquisitors after the Bulls’ practice Monday, but it’s safe to assume that somewhere up high is: Rebounding. The Wizards beat them on the boards 45-39, including 13-6 in the fourth quarter. Chicago missed 11 shots in that period and reclaimed only two as offensive rebounds.

“When the ball was in the air, that game was decided,” Thibodeau said.

Led by Marcin Gortat‘s 13, Washington’s front line outboarded Chicago’s 28-21.

“We talk about fundamentals,” power forward Nene said. “Box out, for example. All the players need to box out and then the rebound will choose who’s supposed to grab it.”

Oh, that won’t cut it with a coach like Thibs, who considers rebounds a birthright for his team when they’re playing correctly. The Bulls outrebounded their opponents in 65 percent of their games and 73 percent of their victories, going 35-18 on those occasions. But they did it only six times in their final 18 regular-season games.

Among the other bullet points on Thibodeau’s scroll – if it’s that long, calling it a list seems insufficient – were intensity, ball movement (only 13 assists) and defending without fouling. The Wizards shot 35 free throws and outscored Chicago from the line by six; in the regular season, the Bulls gave up the third-fewest number of free throws in the NBA and outscored foes from the line by a total of 230 points.

The Bulls coach also spoke for the third time since Sunday’s final horn of his displeasure with his players’ displeasure with the referees. They got caught complaining when they should have been getting back and defending.

“There’s an appropriate time to make a point to an official,” the Bulls coach said. “If you think they missed something, you have to wait for a dead ball. You don’t do it during the course of a game.

“These officials are good, they’ll talk to you. But it’s got to be at the appropriate time.”

One item apparently not on Thibodeau’s list: Shaking up his fourth-quarter lineups. Though that group struggled to score over Game 1’s final six minutes, prompting some to wonder if Carlos Boozer or Mike Dunleavy might see more late action Tuesday, Thibodeau said: “We’re not going to get away from the guys who have gotten us there. But there are certain things we can do to help each other get open, and we’re going to have to do that.”

Nene says no-no to Chicago’s defense

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Wizards claim series opener in Chicago

CHICAGO – Nene, the Washington Wizards’ big man by way of Sao Carlos, Brazil, was having trouble Saturday night and Sunday morning. He couldn’t sleep. The 2014 NBA playoffs were soon to start for his team and Nene – already thrilled about coming back from a left knee sprain – didn’t know which was pumping faster: his heart or the adrenaline.

“The mental preparation is very important. Last night I couldn’t sleep well, because I started to think about the game in the middle of the night,” he said Sunday at United Center, the Wizards’ 102-93 road victory over the Chicago Bulls tucked in for the night.

“I started to think about what I was going to do. How I was going to defend. I was very excited about the playoffs. It’s a good feeling because that makes you prepare yourself. I hope I can’t sleep again, to play better.”

Sorry, Nene, but the Bulls will be in charge of the tossing and turning for the next couple of nights.

Starting for the first time since February, Nene made a big difference for the Wizards size-wise, impact-wise and excitement-wise in their first playoff game since 2008. He stepped back into the middle of their action seamlessly, scoring 24 points on 11 of 17 shooting with eight rebounds and three assists.

His aggressiveness became their aggressiveness, and Washington wound up picking apart Chicago’s vaunted defense in several uncommon ways. Teams don’t shoot 50 percent against the Bulls – but the Wizards nearly did so in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series. Their 48.6 percent was close enough, and if you combine it with the Wizards’ two January victories over Chicago, it left them at a legit 50.4 percent (115-for-228) in the three games.


VIDEO: Nene talks about winning Game 1

Bulls opponents hit half their shots or better just 12 times in 82 games but went 10-2 as their reward. If you go strictly by what Washington shot Sunday and only in postseason games, the Bulls are 1-19 since the start of the 2006 playoffs when the other guys are at 48 percent or higher.

Key to that? They embrace their third options, because they know the Bulls are going to take away the first two.

“You can’t predetermine anything,” coach Randy Wittman said. “You can’t make up your mind on a certain play that you’re going to do this. They’re so good defensively, you’ve got to react to what they’re doing. Make the simple plays and the ball moves in simple ways. When we do that, we get pretty good shots. And we’ve got guys who can shoot.

“As soon as you say ‘I’m going to split this pick-and-roll here,’ it’s a turnover. When we don’t do that, when we don’t anticipate and just react to what the defense does and what they want to take away and then go your second or third option, then we’re pretty good.”

The Wizards’ ability to read-and-react kicked in fully after halftime. They fell behind by 13 points in the first few minutes of the third, then outscored Chicago 51-29 the rest of the way. While the points-challenged Bulls shot just 39.5 percent over the final two quarters, the Wizards settled in, hitting half of their 38 attempts and, oh yeah, dominating the boards 24-15.

Nene was especially effective, with a versatility on the offensive end that kept Chicago guessing. He was reliable with his mid-range jump shot, attacked the rim multiple times and, particularly in the second half, was a crafty passer (with a couple of hockey assists mixed in).

Overall, he made life pretty difficult for Bulls center Joakim Noah, one of the favorites for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Good thing the ballots were all cast by Thursday.

Tom Thibodeau, who routinely has the sort of sleepless nights Nene experienced this weekend, lavished praise on the Wizards’ big man, even as he began plotting ways to thwart him. It won’t be easy – Washington was 30-23 when Nene played this season, 14-15 when he did not.

This was only the fourth time in 45 playoff games that he scored as many as 20 points. But he’s healthy now and doesn’t plan on missing any more games. Or fun.

“Today I feel fantastic. First of all, it’s a special day for all of us. It’s Easter Day,” Nene said. “For all humans, it’s a big day. You know, salvation day. And to be able to play playoffs on this specific day is double-blessed.”

Restoring Nene to his rightful spot, next to Wizards center Marcin Gortat, makes them double trouble. Neither big man got in the other’s way in Game 1 – in fact, after a slow start, Gortat finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, 12 and eight in the second half.

“I’m just trying to play off Nene,” Gortat said. “The most important thing is, we not run into each other in the game. Most of the time he’s on the other side of the block – wherever I am, he’s on the other side. The system we have is perfect for both of us. Each one of us is getting to a sweet spot where we can play our game.

“If I start scoring on the pick-and-rolls or put-backs, they’re going to focus a little bit more on me. That opens up things for him. He’s so aggressive, so dominant in the low post that he can create a lot of things for us.”

What Nene created for the Wizards in Game 1, with his scoring, his energy, his passing and his joy of playing again, was hope. Precisely the thing Chicago had hoped to quash.

Numbers preview: Bulls-Wizards

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: East Playoff Preview: Bulls vs. Wizards

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat hold the top two seeds, but six Eastern Conference teams had better records after the All-Star break. Two of those teams will meet in the 4-5 series.

The Chicago Bulls have once again overcome the loss of Derrick Rose. But they’ve also been better since trading Luol Deng than they were before. The Washington Wizards have been solid all season, ending a five year playoff drought with a top-10 defense and one of the league’s most improved offenses.

Here are some statistical nuggets regarding the 4 and 5 seeds in the East, as well as the three regular-season games they played against each other.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Chicago Bulls (48-34)

Pace: 92.7 (28)
OffRtg: 99.7 (28)
DefRtg: 97.8 (2)
NetRtg: +1.9 (12)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Washington: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Bulls notes:

Washington Wizards (44-38)

Pace: 95.5 (19)
OffRtg: 103.3 (18)
DefRtg: 102.4 (10)
NetRtg: +0.9 (15)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Chicago: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Wizards notes:

The matchup

Season series: Wizards won 2-1 (1-1 at Washington)
Pace: 90.8
CHI OffRtg: 102.3 (15th vs. WAS)
WAS OffRtg: 100.6 (8th vs. CHI)

Matchup notes: