When Nene got tossed in game three for escalating a scuffle with Bulls guard Jimmy Butler it was evident that Game 3 was lost. Nene had been the X-factor in both of the previous games, because the Bulls league-leading defense could not contain both him and Marcin Gortat. The two seemed to stretch their big men in a way that completely opened up the paint, giving way for John Wall, Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza — all great finishers at the rim — to penetrate the Bulls interior for easy lay-ins or wide open corner kick outs when the Bulls collapse.
Losing Nene took away that edge for the time being, because it knocked the Wizards out of their comfort zone and they lost a nail biter. But between that loss and today’s victory coach Randy Wittman did what he has continued to do all series and that is make quality adjustments whether it’s the smart substitutions or the simple play calls. A lot of the Wizards’ success has been credited to the Bulls’ poor showings on offense, but few have recognized how well Wittman has hung in there against Tom Thibodeau, the man responsible for creating and facilitating the league’s best defense. Wittman is coaching for his job and he has thrived under the pressure.
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The Wizards came out guns blazing en route to an early 19-4 lead, even without the ferocious Nene. The game got tighter as it went on but the Wizards held on to that lead for the rest of the game. John Wall played like a mature, pure point guard, orchestrating the Wizards offense with the poise of a seasoned veteran despite it being only his second home playoff game in his young career.
But Trevor Ariza couldn’t have said it better, when he responded to a question about Nene’s absence by saying “When one player goes down everyone else needs to step up, it’s a team game.” Ariza may have been talking about himself, as he lit up the Bulls for 30 points of his own. That kind of production from role players is what makes these Wizards so dangerous.
More than that, Trevor Booker filled Nene’s starting role like a round peg in a round hole. It seemed as though the Wizards didn’t skip a beat, and he provided great energy and defense. Booker is a fan favorite for his hustle, and he shined in his starting role tonight.
I could rave about today’s game for hours. It was really a flawless performance from a team perspective. There are always things that individuals can improve on, like Gortat’s shooting, or Martell Webster’s passing, but they played like a well oiled machine and never lost control or blew the lead. This just goes to show how valuable it is to have guys like Andre Miller and Drew Gooden in your locker room.
Veteran players with their playoff experience are priceless in the playoffs because at the very least they play smart, fundamentally-sound basketball. When Wall hits the bench and Miller steps on the floor, he is as stable and consistent a backup point guard as there is in this league. He slows down the game and makes the opponent win in the half court. While he may not be as offensively productive as the guy he relieves, he weathers the opponent’s offensive storm by controlling the tempo and pace of the game.
I would be remiss if I did a recap of this game without mentioning Bradley Beal, who has really come into his own and shown a great rapport with John Wall. These two have a very bright future together, Wall being an All-Star, and Beal with All-Star potential. Even though it is only his second year, he has an NBA ready body combined with excellent athleticism and deep shooting range. The Wizards are on the right track in their rebuilding process, and look no further than Wall/Beal for evidence.
The Bulls don’t strike me as a team that will go down without a fight, and game five will be a bloodbath. How Nene’s return impacts the game is unpredictable because even though he has given the Bulls fits down low, it could disrupt the Wizards beautiful chemistry that was on display today by plugging him back in the lineup.
But it just doesn’t sound right to say that the Wizards will win this series by winning three of the necessary four games on the road. That would be very uncharacteristic of the Wizards and even more so of the Bulls to lose in that fashion. My prediction is the Bulls hit their stride at the United Center where they have been excellent, but the Wizards close out the series at home in game six. Wizards fans will rally around the opportunity for the team to win it’s first playoff series since 2005, and the Wiz kids will feed off that energy the way they did today.