The Wizards and Chicago Bulls came together for the first time in Rio de Janeiro in late October, practicing in the same tiny, musty gymnasium with fluffy nets and a creaky court. The Bulls were considered a championship contender when they arrived in Brazil, emboldened by the return of Derrick Rose, who missed the previous season with a torn ACL in his left knee. The Wizards were just hoping to make the playoffs after missing out the previous five seasons.
After a week of practice and community service efforts, the two teams played the first NBA exhibition game in South America. Nene was booed in his home country, Rose didn’t play because of concern over his knee and the Bulls won. Six months later, the come back together for a first-round NBA playoff series — and both are pleased with where they are, considering how the regular season unfolded.
The fourth-seeded Bulls rallied to get home-court advantage without Rose, who is done for another season after he tore the meniscus in his right knee in November, and after they traded stalwart Luol Deng in a cost-cutting deal with Cleveland. The fifth-seeded Wizards made the playoffs despite a 2-7 start and Nene missing 29 games.
The Wizards were the only Eastern Conference team to win the season series against the Bulls, going 2-1. Here’s how the teams stack up:
Point guard: John Wall vs. Kirk Hinrich
In his fourth season, Wall had the best season of his career, leading the NBA is total assists (721) and connecting on 35.1 percent of his three-point attempts. Wall is the head of the snake, orchestrating an offense that averaged 100.7 points per game and ranked fifth in three-point shooting percentage (38.0). Hinrich is a feisty defender who has familiarity with Wall after serving as his backup for part of the 2010-11 season.
Wall: 19.3 points, 8.8 assists
Hinrich: 9.1 points, 3.9 assists
Power forward: Nene vs. Carlos Boozer
When the Wizards had Nene for two games against Chicago, they won. When they didn’t, they lost. Nene is easing his way back from a knee injury but he makes a difference with playmaking and scoring ability. Boozer has been an underrated part of the Bulls’ success since arriving as a free agent in 2010, providing steady scoring and rebounding. He also has fared well scoring against Nene.
Nene: 14.2 points, 5.5 rebounds
Boozer: 13.7 points, 8.3 rebounds
Shooting guard: Bradley Beal vs. Jimmy Butler
Beal is the Wizards’ second-leading scorer and the second-youngest starter in the playoffs at age 20. In three games against Chicago, Beal has shot 50 percent (19 of 38) but Butler has helped limit him to less than 14 points per game. Butler has filled Deng’s role as a defensive stopper and can occasionally provide a boost offensively.
Beal: 17.1 points, 40.2 three-point percentage
Butler: 13.1 points, 4.9 rebounds
Small forward: Trevor Ariza vs. Mike Dunleavy
Ariza hit a career-high 180 three-pointers, the fourth-highest single-season total in franchise history. He made three three-pointers in the Wizards’ first win over Chicago but has failed to make a three-pointer in the last two head-to-head matchups. His defense has kept him on the floor, as Ariza has helped limit Dunleavy to just 8.3 points in the three games.
Ariza: 14.4 points, 40.7 three-point percentage
Dunleavy: 11.3 points, 4.2 rebounds
Center: Marcin Gortat vs. Joakim Noah
Noah is the front-runner for defensive player of the year and has been the heart and soul of a relentless Bulls team that has remained relevant despite roster upheaval. The versatile, 6-foot-11 ball of energy had four-triple-doubles and will be playing with a heavy heart with the recent passing of his mentor, Tyrone Green. Gortat has matched up well with Noah and rescued the Wizards’ season with his rebounding and shot-blocking presence. He has given Noah fits with scoring ability inside.
Gortat: 13.2 points, 9.5 rebounds
Noah: 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds
Bench: Old vets vs. scoring punch
Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Drew Gooden have given the Wizards veteran savvy and a greater urgency off the bench. With Martell Webster and possibly Trevor Booker, the Wizards’ second-unit is more solid than at any point this season. D.J. Augustin has resurrected his career and emerged as the Bulls’ leading scorer — but he might miss out on sixth man of year to his teammate, Taj Gibson. Gibson plays with boundless energy and is known for making momentum-changing plays.
Wizards bench: 26.1 points per game
Bulls bench: 29.5 points
Coach: Randy Wittman vs. Tom Thibodeau
The 2011 NBA coach of the year, Thibodeau has lead the Bulls into the playoffs in each of his four seasons with franchise. The Bulls have withstood the absence of Rose for another season by employing a rugged defense that ranks first in the NBA in points allowed. Wittman has been to the postseason several times as an assistant but is making his playoff debut as a head coach.
Wittman: 191-329 (91-122 with Wizards)
Thibodeau: 312-205 (all with Bulls)
Michael Lee: Wizards in seven
Mike Wise: Wizards in seven
Jason Reid: Bulls in six
Brandon Parker: Bulls in seven
More on the Wizards and the NBA playoffs:
Mike Wise: Wizards have advantage in veteran experience
Jason Reid: Climbing will get steeper for Wall and Wizards
Follow Michael Lee on Twitter: @MrMichaelLee