DEERFIELD, Ill. -- The crowd noise booming from the Chicago Bulls' practice court on Friday was piped in, but the young players got the point: The playoff series that starts today against the Wizards at sold-out United Center will be anything but ordinary.
Seven long, losing seasons after the Bulls won their sixth NBA title of the 1990s, the team that will face the Wizards this afternoon knows little about playoff pressure.
"We need to play happy," said forward Andres Nocioni, who like many of the Chicago Bulls' key contributors is embarking on his first NBA postseason.
(John Bazemore -- AP)
Stocked with young players barely out of college, the Bulls will have no trouble getting motivated, Coach Scott Skiles said the other day. The challenge will be to keep them cool and focused when the crowds go wild. This is a team that led the league in turnovers during the regular season, when the pressure wasn't on.
"We need to play happy," said Andres Nocioni, a rookie forward considered a virtual veteran after playing two years in Spain. "We need to enjoy this game."
As they did all year, the Bulls are counting on defense against the Wizards, one of six teams in the league to average more than 100 points per game. The Bulls turned around their season, and their decade, by forcing opponents into shooting 42.2 percent a game, best in the league.
After a tough Friday practice, where Skiles injected the taped crowd noise "to make it a little chaotic for the guys," center Tyson Chandler and forward Othella Harrington made it clear they had absorbed the mantra, describing in almost identical ways the need to get back on defense and box out below the basket to keep the Wizards off the offensive boards.
The Bulls brushed off the comments from Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas, who said Thursday, "We know they have a couple of dirty players." Nocioni was suspended for a game for throwing an elbow at Detroit's Tayshaun Prince, and Chandler was ejected from a game against the Wizards for shoving Brendan Haywood.
Nocioni said, "We play harder than a lot of teams."
"We're just a scrappy team," said guard Chris Duhon. "That's how we've been all year. We're not going to change our style in any way. We're going to go out and be physical; and if the refs call it, we're going to adjust."
Duhon, a rookie from Duke, is part of the youth infusion that lifted the Bulls into the playoffs for the first time since Michael Jordan hit the jumper that stunned the Utah Jazz and won Chicago its sixth title in 1998. At 22, Duhon is the same age as Chandler, rookie-of-the-year candidate Ben Gordon, and Eddy Curry, the team's leading scorer, who is out for the year with an irregular heartbeat. Forward Luol Deng, out following wrist surgery, is just 20.
When it comes to winning at any level, some of the Bulls' young players have had more success in recent years than the franchise, which went 119-341 between 1998 and 2004. In the win-or-go-home NCAA tournament, Duhon was part of the Duke team that took the 2001 NCAA title. Gordon starred on Connecticut's championship team last year. Guard Kirk Hinrich led Kansas to consecutive Final Four appearances.
"A lot of guys have been in big-time tournaments," Duhon said. "We're excited, but kind of monotone. Probably Sunday, you're going to see it all come out."
After the Bulls' abysmal 0-9 start this year, playoff possibilities seemed as remote as ever. But things got better. Much better. They went 43-20 after Dec. 13 and finished with 15 wins in their last 19 games. To continue playing is great, and to be the fourth seed in the East makes it all the sweeter.
"Definitely, I feel different because normally I'm at my mom's house right now," said Chandler, in his fourth season since skipping college to go pro. "I'm excited."
Although they lost two out of three to the Wizards this year, committing too many turnovers and losing out on the offensive boards, the Bulls are not disappointed about drawing a similarly inexperienced, up-from-the-bottom team in the first round.
The trick now, they say, is to win games that count.
Good playoff teams, Harrington said after practice, can't allow themselves to coast for three quarters and pick up the tempo in the fourth. The playoffs, he said, are about being physical and making possessions matter, game after game.
"College basketball is great, but it's college basketball," said Harrington, a four-year starter at Georgetown. "But this is the upper echelon."