In a perfect world, the first-round playoff series between the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls would be a matchup pitting two of the NBA’s most-skilled point guards against one another in Washington’s John Wall and Chicago’s Derrick Rose.
But with Rose again sidelined by a season-ending knee injury, the focus of this series has shifted to the paint, where Wizards post players Nene and Marcin Gortat will work in tandem to combat Chicago forward and Defensive Player of the Year contender Joakim Noah.
The flamboyant Noah has become the face of Chicago’s franchise with his steady, infectious play. Not only is the seventh-year veteran controlling the boards with his long arms and physical style but he’s also taken over Rose’s role as a distributor, averaging a team-high 5.4 assists, including three games with at least nine dimes during the month of April.
“I definitely think that [Noah] is right now the best center in the league overall by the numbers, with everything he does and everything he brings,” Gortat said. “He’s a hell of rebounder, his offensive game is better and better, he’s a great passer, very good defender. He’s the heart of this team.”
Along with forwards Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer, the battle on the interior is sure to be an intense one as the big-bodied Gortat and Nene relish matchups like these.
In Washington’s first win against Chicago this season, Nene scored eight points in the fourth quarter, keeping the Bulls defenders on their heels with his mid-range jumpers and power moves around the basket.
Four days later, Nene showed his defensive range by switching onto Chicago guard Jimmy Butler on the perimeter before blocking his last-second three-point attempt to seal another Wizards victory.
“This is a physical team so that’s right up Nene’s alley,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “He loves that kind of game. Having him, having another body to bang with these guys obviously will be big for us.”
Gortat also found success in the middle against Chicago’s bigs, especially Noah. In the teams’ three meetings, Noah was matched up on Gortat for just over 15 minutes and in that time, Washington’s center connected on nine of his 13 field goal attempts and totaled 21 points, according to NBA.com/stats.
The Poland native is playing his best basketball of the season, averaging 16.4 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting 59.4 percent from the field during the month of April.
“It’s going to be a huge test for me to stop him,” Gortat said. “I also have to be aggressive to make sure I go at him. I’m excited to play against him. Its going to be a great matchup. It’s also a opportunity to fight for my respect.”
More on the Wizards and the NBA playoffs:
Jason Reid: Climbing will get steeper for Wall and Wizards
Follow Michael Lee on Twitter: @MrMichaelLee