Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls entered Sunday’s Game 4 against the Washington Wizards full of confident excitement, with the Wizards forced to play without suspended forward Nene. “Man, we’re going to get all up in them and make it 2-2 going back to the crib, baby! Going back to the crib!” Noah was heard bellowing to teammate Jimmy Butler in a hall Sunday morning.
Noah was right about this much: Tuesday’s Game 5 will be played in Chicago’s United Center. But the Wizards needed less than four minutes to take control Sunday and shrink Chicago’s window of opportunity to a sliver of hope, as their 98-89 victory opened up a three-games-to-one lead in the NBA playoff first-round series.
Putting together their best performance of the playoffs without Nene in the lineup, the Wizards showed off both their depth and balance. Four players scored at least 15 points while Trevor Booker stepped in for Nene to grab a team-high nine rebounds.
“The good thing is we have a lot of weapons, and if one of us has a bad night or is out, then there’s a lot of guys who can step in and play good basketball for us,” Wizards center Marcin Gortat said following Monday’s practice. “Still, we have a lot of guys that we can say didn’t have a good game, and we’re hoping maybe [Tuesday] that these guys are going to fire up and have 20 or 30 [points].”
In Game 1, Nene frustrated Chicago’s pack of physical forwards with his midrange jumper. Two nights later, Bradley Beal had the first big-time playoff performance of his young career, scoring nine points in the final five minutes to pave the way for an overtime win. And on Sunday, Trevor Ariza had a playoff career-high 30 points and six three-pointers in victory.
All of Washington’s usual starters averaged at least 13 points per game during the regular season, and eight different players netted at least one 20-point performance. On the other hand, Taj Gibson is the only Bulls player to score in double figures in all four games of the series.
“If [Gibson] has another monster game [Tuesday] and we win, I’m fine with it,” a smiling Booker said after witnessing Gibson score a career-high 32 points Sunday.
The Wizards won their two previous games in Chicago, but with Washington angling to end the Bulls’ season in front of their fans, slowing down Gibson and his teammates could prove a bit tougher Tuesday.
Wizards Coach Randy Wittman tried to impart a sense of desperation among his players during Monday’s practice, even after Washington outscored the Bulls in the first quarter of all four games in the series so far.
To combat the challenge of playing on the road, the Wizards look to maintain the smart play that yielded just six turnovers Sunday, the up-tempo attack that produced a 16-2 advantage in fast-break points and the proverbial chip on their shoulder that’s positioned them to earn just their third playoff series win since 1979.
“We’re the underdogs, and that’s the way we want to go into this situation,” Wizards guard John Wall said. “We know it’s pretty big to get off to a good start against these guys because they’re a great defensive team. . . . The biggest thing is not trying to go there and lose and then having to come back here again and putting the pressure on yourself to win.”