Around this time last week, when it was clear that the Washington Wizards had clinched the fifth seed and would face the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, just about all the experts wrote off the Wizards, saying they would have been better off facing third-seeded Toronto.
Well, here we are today with the Wizards up 2-0 on the Bulls following two gritty wins in Chicago and Brooklyn, which essentially tanked in the regular-season finale for the No. 6 seed, tied 1-1 with Toronto after dropping a close game on Tuesday.
How has a Wizards team, whose record hovered below or around the .500 mark for most of the season, became the most dangerous unit of the playoffs? Let’s take a look at the numbers so far from their first-round series:
Total points allowed by the Wizards in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter of Games 1 and 2. All the talk entering the series — and rightfully so — was about Chicago’s stout defense led by Defensive POY Joakim Noah. But Washington hadn’t been too shabby of late, either. After allowing a season-high 104.8 points per 100 possessions in March, the Wizards had trimmed their defensive rating to 98.1 in the month of April. Washington has continued its strong effort against the offensively challenged Bulls (averages of 96 points and 42.6 percent shooting in Games 1 and 2), allowing the Wizards to erase deficits of 13 points in Game 1 and 10 points in Game 2. Chicago hasn’t helped its cause, as the Bulls’ seven-man rotation appeared gassed by Tuesday’s overtime and made just four field goals in the final 12 minutes. Also, after allowing D.J. Augustin to get loose for 25 points off the bench, Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza helped swarm the speedy guard to hold him scoreless for the game’s final 13 minutes.
7 & 6
Consecutive points scored by John Wall and Bradley Beal at the end of the first half and fourth quarter, respectively. After combining to miss 18 of their 25 shots in Game 1, the Wizards two youngest stars were key in staving off Chicago’s attempts to capture Game 2. After the Bulls rallied to erase Washington’s 17-point lead and tie the game, Wall took charge offensively and scored the Wizards last seven points to give them a 56-49 halftime cushion. In crunch time, it was Beal who played anything like a 20-year-old. With the Wizards reeling on the ropes, the second-year guard drained a three-pointer, floater and knocked down the game-tying free throw to force overtime.
Free-throw percentage for the Wizards in Game 2. Washington hit just 16 of its 28 attempts, including a 9-for-20 showing in the second half. Granted, the Wizards did hit all four of their foul shots in overtime, and the free throws that everybody will remember are Kirk Hinrich’s misses in the final seconds. But in order to keep the Bulls from going on runs (and they will) and to pull out what are bound to be tight games the rest of this series, Washington can’t leave 23 points at the line. Nene, who has been Washington’s best overall player this series, is the team’s worst free-throw shooter, going just 3-for-9 from the line.
Points scored by the Bulls in the paint compared to Washington’s 22 interior points. Most of these buckets came from Chicago’s Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, who were relentless on the glass (22 rebounds, including 11 offensive) and had their way against Washington center Marcin Gortat. The good news for the Wizards is their jump shooting helped keep them in contention, scoring 66 points on 28-for-58 (48.3 percent) shooting from the outside. Meanwhile, Chicago shot just 16-for-47 along the perimeter as Washington again forced the physical Bulls into uncharacteristically relying on long shots when they get tired. Washington also held most of Chicago’s interior production in check during crunch time, as the Bulls went just 4-for-11 in the paint for eight points in the fourth quarter and overtime. Credit Trevor Booker and Nene, who remained aggressive despite being strapped with foul trouble for most of the second half.
Teams that have dropped Games 1 and 2 at home and still won the series (the 1968-69 Los Angeles Lakers, the 1993-94 Houston Rockets and the 2004-05 Dallas Mavericks). The Wizards certainly have the Bulls against the ropes as the series shifts to the Verizon Center but Washington’s continued underdog mentality will serve them well and stopping Chicago from joining this short list of teams to rally for the series win.