The consensus among just about all pundits on the eve of the NBA playoffs seems to be that the Washington Wizards have little chance of beating the Chicago Bulls in the first round.
Seventeen of ESPN’s 18 NBA writers chose Chicago to win, Sports Illustrated listed the Wizards as 14th out of 16 teams in its playoff power rankings and ESPN’s Michael Wilbon recently wrote an article citing Washington as the “ideal matchup” for the Bulls.
But the lopsided outlook for a matchup between the fourth- and fifth-best teams in the East doesn’t bother Washington center Marcin Gortat. In fact, he expects it.
“Why would they pick us?” Gortat said following Friday’s practice. “First of all, Chicago is a experienced team. They have a lot of good players every year. The pressure is on them. I don’t understand why should we be mad. At the end of the day, this is a good team and we’ve just got to beat them. We’ve got to focus on our team.”
Along with the lack of homecourt advantage, several factors stack the odds against the Wizards, a franchise that has only reached the second round of the playoffs once in the past 31 years.
The main focus has been on Chicago’s defensive success. The Bulls have allowed a league-low 91.8 points per game behind Defensive Player of the Year candidate Joakim Noah — while also scoring a league-low 93.7 points behind their deliberate offense.
While Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau was an assistant on Boston’s 2008 championship team and coached Chicago to the 2009 conference finals, Wizards Coach Randy Wittman is making his first postseason appearance as a head coach. Washington’s top two scorers, John Wall and Bradley Beal, are also new to the postseason, in contrast to grizzled playoff veterans like Noah and Carlos Boozer.
But outside of Wall, Beal and Trevor Booker, the seven other players in Washington’s 10-man rotation have a wealth of playoff experience. Gortat was a backup center for Orlando when the Magic went to the 2009 NBA Finals, Trevor Ariza started for the champion Lakers in that same series, Drew Gooden started alongside LeBron James for Cleveland in the 2007 NBA Finals, Andre Miller has been to the postseason in nine of the past 10 seasons — one of which came in Portland with current Wizard Martell Webster — Nene has only missed the playoffs twice and Al Harrington has been to the postseason six times.
“A lot of people are writing us off, not saying we really have a chance,” Wall said. “They say we don’t got no experience, they got more experience and stuff like that, but all we can worry about is the Washington Wizards and what we got for ourselves and our game plan.”
It likely doesn’t help that the last memory most have of Washington playing Chicago came on April 5, when the Bulls capitalized on the absence of Nene and the proficiency of Noah (21 points, 12 rebounds) to rout the Wizards, 96-78. But in their first two meetings, Washington had its way, beating the Bulls twice in the span of four days behind the solid play of Wall and Nene.
“They were more physical, they were more aggressive,” Wittman said. “That’s what it boiled down to. Not really whether Nene was here or not. I think our guys would admit that.”
Both the players and coaches are quick to note that the playoffs mark the start of a new season and, in their minds, that means the records, stats and even odds can all be thrown out the window.
“We have an understanding of what they’re capable of doing,” Wittman said. “We beat them the first two games and I think they wanted to send us a message cause we beat them two times. They did. Who’s going to send the next message?”