CHICAGO — The game and the series wrapped up, and with the ball in his hands, John Wall wasn’t quite sure what to do as the final seconds of the Washington Wizards’ 75-69 victory over the Chicago Bulls ticked off. Wall dribbled forward, backed up, hopped, and looked down the floor as his teammates jumped giddily up and down on the bench.
Finally, Wall threw the ball about 70 feet ahead to Trevor Ariza and sprinted down the floor so quickly that Ariza barely had enough time to slam the ball on the hardwood before Wall was there, prepared to chest-bump him.
“It was a great feeling. It was everything that I’ve been waiting for, coming to the Washington Wizards, being drafted number one. Going through the tough times,” Wall said after scoring a game-high 24 points to lead the franchise he was drafted to resurrect into the second round for the first time since 2005.
The tough times have gone on for far too long for a franchise that has only won three playoff series since 1979, but they took the first step toward embarking on a much more pleasant journey by claiming the best-of-seven series against the favored Bulls four games to one. The win marked the first time in franchise history that it won a seven-game series in just five games.
“It’s been a long journey we’ve been on,” Bradley Beal said. “For us to make the playoffs and win a tough series against a great team we just played against means a lot. At the same time, it is a humbling experience because a lot of people doubted us. Now, we know what we’re capable of doing.”
Despite arriving in Chicago with a 3-1 lead, Coach Randy Wittman wanted the Wizards to play like the more desperate team. Wall echoed that sentiment by continually trumpeting the Wizards as the underdog, even as that became harder to believe as the series played out.
Still, that mentality was evident in Ariza, as he fought through two Bulls, batting the ball to himself three times to get a steal; in Trevor Booker, who was flying all over the court to grab almost any loose carom; in Marcin Gortat grabbing three offensive rebounds on one possession in the final minutes; and lastly, that hunger was found in Nene, who grabbed two offensive rebounds in the closing seconds, refusing to give Chicago even the slightest slice of hope.
In the lowest-scoring game of the series, the Wizards proved to have more grit and determination against a Bulls team that appeared to realize a while ago it didn’t have enough offense to contend with a team that also had a decided edge in overall talent.
“They never lost their focus of being satisfied with a couple of wins,” Wittman said after winning his first playoff series as a head coach. “A couple of years ago, we never would’ve won a game like this. Now this team believes in defense, what we do and how we do it. we’ll look back on this, I think, as this group moves forward. We will get a big jump from this.”
Nene returned after serving a one-game suspension for head-butting and grabbing Jimmy Butler by the neck. The Wizards won Game 4 in Nene’s absence, getting a 30-point effort from Ariza (that included six three-pointers), but they are most certainly a better team with the Brazilian big man on the floor. Declining to discuss his suspension before the game, Nene wanted to focus instead on doing what it took to close out the Bulls, which was going to be a difficult since it was going to require Washington winning for the fourth time, including once in the regular season, at United Center.
In the Wizards’ first two wins of the series, Nene presented a huge problem for NBA defensive player of the year Joakim Noah with his ability to stretch the floor and hit jumpers. He also made several savvy plays to will his team. That brawn and skill were once again on the display as he scored 20 points on 10-of-17 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds. Nene handled Noah for the third time this series. After Nene hit a series of jumpers in the second half, Noah helplessly shook his head as he ran back on offense.
“He was disappointed that he got suspended,” Ariza said of Nene. “He let us down and he came out and played his heart out again. When he’s rolling, you got to give it to him. Again, he’s a big part of what we do.”
The Wizards now have to await the winner of the series between the Indiana Pacers and the Atlanta Hawks. The eighth-seeded Hawks have a 3-2 lead on the top-seeded Pacers, who have been in a freefall for the past few months.
“I think everything we been through was necessary, to give us maturity, give us experience,” Nene said. “All the injury, was to give confidence to our bench and to add a couple of players. You need to fail to succeed. We been learning the last two years and now is our moment. That’s what I think.”