CHICAGO, April 23 -- Even if the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls had never participated in a little shoving, punching and wrestling in the preseason, even if Chicago's Tyson Chandler had never grabbed center Brendan Haywood by the neck, body-slammed him to the floor and mimicked a kick to his midsection, and even if point guard Gilbert Arenas hadn't incited the Bulls last week by referring to some of their players as "dirty," the best-of-seven first-round series between the teams, which begins at 5:30 tonight at United Center, would be one of the more intriguing matchups in the postseason.
What the series may lack in star power it certainly makes up for in anticipation. The franchises haven't been to the playoffs since before the lockout season in 1999 -- the Wizards in 1997 (when they were known as the Bullets) and the Bulls in 1998 (when they were known as a dynasty). And, they have rosters filled with young players with little or no postseason experience who are looking to make a name for themselves. It's a wonder if they don't trip over each other before they figure out what the playoffs are all about.
Gilbert Arenas said he expects the series to contain "inexperienced" basketball.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
"I think for both teams, it's going to be like Christmas," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "You don't know what to expect. Neither team knows how the other team is going to react. Is it going to be hard? Is it going to be easier than you expect? Heck, I don't know."
The teams also have been two of the more pleasant surprises of the season. The Bulls (47-35) dug themselves out of an 0-9 start and withstood season-ending injuries to starters Eddy Curry (heart condition) and Luol Deng (wrist) to earn the fourth seed. "It takes a special group to fight through all of the adversity," Chicago's Antonio Davis said earlier this month, "but we continue to fight." The Wizards (45-37) overcame an injury-filled season and an overwhelming culture of losing. "We did a lot better than people thought we'd do, but the important thing is not to be satisfied," forward Etan Thomas said. "And, I don't think we're satisfied."
The Wizards won the season series 2-1, claiming both games at MCI Center. When they lost, 97-90, in Chicago on Feb. 25, the Wizards played without guard Larry Hughes, who was recovering from a broken right thumb.
"We like the matchup. From the time we had our thing in the preseason, we couldn't wait to play those guys in the regular season," said Hughes, who was suspended one game for his role in the preseason brawl. "We're not playing basketball to hurt anybody or get in fights with anybody. We want to show that we're the dominant team and nothing else. We don't want to bully people or make ourselves look like clowns. We want to play solid basketball and show that we're a team that people are going to have to contend with."
Haywood has been the focal point in both skirmishes with the Bulls. In the preseason, he threw the first punch at Davis, which set off a wild exchange at center court and led to a three-game suspension for Haywood. But he walked away from Chandler, who was ejected after making a kicking gesture in the Wizards' 93-82 win on April 13. Haywood and Chandler exchanged some choice words after the incident, but Haywood said he isn't concerned about any possible bad blood.
"All that silly stuff that happened with me and Tyson will be in the past. I think it's going to get down to playing basketball," Haywood said. "Right now, you can't afford to get thrown out of games, make silly hard fouls and get kicked out. It's just basketball right now. I don't have a beef. I tried to box him out and he threw me to the ground. I don't have a problem with the guy."
Bulls rookie Andres Nocioni, however, took exception to Arenas's comment that "we know [the Bulls] have a couple of dirty players." Nocioni missed the last game against the Wizards after elbowing Detroit's Tayshaun Prince in the head, a knockout blow Nocioni claims wasn't intentional. "When did I do something dirty? When? Tell me," Nocioni, who is from Argentina, told reporters in Chicago. "I don't understand the American player."
With the recent signing of forward Lawrence Funderburke -- who was brought in to replace Curry, the team's leading scorer in the regular season -- the Bulls have five players on their roster with playoff experience. The Wizards have just three players with playoff experience in Hughes, forward Antawn Jamison and reserve Anthony Peeler, a 14-year veteran who will extend his postseason streak to eight seasons and accounts for 50 of the team's total 63 playoff games. Hughes hasn't been to the postseason since his rookie season with Philadelphia in 1999, and Jamison was the sixth man for a Dallas team that lasted just five games in the playoffs last season.
"This is, to me, my first chance to play," Jamison said. "I'm excited about being there in the heat of the moment. This is what you lift weights for in the preseason, this what you run those extra sprints for, to have this opportunity to make some noise and have some success. This is what it's all about it. This is when you make your money."
Peeler said several of the Wizards have been leaning on him for advice in the past weeks, showing a level of inquisitiveness that leads him to chuckle and wonder. "I can't wait to see all of these guys' eyeballs when the ball goes up," Peeler said. "I'm like, 'Wow, I've got to be the one to get everybody hyped up and relaxed at the same time. I've got to make sure this guy's not pouting.' Since they're used to being at home this time of the season, I was asking them if they was getting lightheaded or sick."
Arenas hasn't spoken to the media the past two days, but he best summed up what to expect in this series on Thursday. "These games should be great, exciting, inexperienced basketball," he said.