By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, May 7, 2005
It's been a long time since Washington had this kind of sporting party. This was so long in coming, after so many choices, so many bad seasons and almost comical despair that folks didn't want to go home, didn't want to let go of the moment or the feeling. A first-round series victory might not create so much drama and emotion in Los Angeles or San Antonio, but it had been 26 years since Washington's professional basketball franchise won a best-of-seven playoff series.
A dozen coaches and 183 players have passed through the Bullets/Wizards locker room since the franchise last won a playoff series of any kind. "A big gap, a huge gap," is how Phil Chenier, a member of the great Bullets teams, described the wait.
How can you know how to act or what to feel when it's year after year in the lottery, year after year at the bottom of the standings and off the basketball radar? Gilbert Arenas, once he had secured the final rebound with little more than one second left, hurled the ball into the stands to start the celebration, perhaps a tick or two premature but it's easy to understand the sentiment.
The Wizards didn't play their best. They didn't even play particularly well for any long stretch. And that should make it all the sweeter. They took their first lead on a bad inbounds play by Chicago that turned into a Jared Jeffries steal and dunk for the Wizards' first lead since the first quarter. Anybody can be a front-runner on a night when every shot is falling. But the Wizards closed out a series the hard way against a hard-to-play, hard-working opponent. For the second straight game they had to demonstrate poise in the final minute, the final seconds, to secure a playoff victory.
The first in a long time ought to be difficult. It ought to make players and coaches take a deep sigh and wipe the sweat from their foreheads. In the end they had to play defense, hope and cling to that 94-91 lead like dear life.
It's been a long, long time since the Fat Lady tuned up her voice for a Wizards playoff series victory, so long that Bruce Volat is 62 years old now, so long that the original Fat Lady from 1978 couldn't even find his costume before Game 6 and had to go buy a new one at the maternity department at the Target in Wheaton. There's no reason to be the Fat Lady when your team isn't in the playoffs, when they're sending representatives to Secaucus, N.J., to monitor Ping-Pong balls every May. Volat had not worn his Fat Lady getup since 1988 when the Wizards -- I'm sorry, the Bullets -- lost a best-of-five first-round series to the Pistons.
People in their twenties looked at Volat before and after the game and asked what in the world a grown man was doing in a Viking helmet and a terry-cloth robe looking like a pregnant lady with a bad hat. It's been too long for most of the people filling MCI Center last night to recall when Wes Unseld owned the glass and Bobby Dandridge shot that sweet jumper.
Okay, the Wizards are long, long way from a championship. Immediately, Shaq is in the way. That's a whole lot of obstacle. But between now and tomorrow, a season lives. Folks around here have every reason to feel good about a playoff contender living right here, about Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison, about beating the Bulls after going down 0-2 to start the series. They ought to feel good about how their team is the first ever to take a series from the Bulls when Chicago had home-court advantage.
The Wizards are playing into May, just like the Bulls and Lakers used to. These Wizards have now gone farther this season than -- get this -- Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson and Chris Webber, Jason Kidd and Vince Carter and Carmelo Anthony.
And they did it by coming from 10 points down in the third quarter, gutting out a victory which has to be sweeter than waltzing through a blowout.
A tight and competitive series was promised at the beginning and a tight and competitive series it was.
During a prolonged stretch near the end of the first half Chicago had on the floor a quintet of guards: Chris Duhon, Jannero Pargo and Adrian Griffin plus forwards Tyson Chandler and Lawrence Funderburke. That's a lineup that, as a unit, would struggle to qualify for the NBA -- forget about the playoffs.
But there they were, facing elimination, on the road, not only holding their own but taking the lead, 54-52, at halftime. Duhon's a rookie who shoots 35 percent. Pargo and Griffin regularly didn't play a single minute during the regular season. Chandler has only come into his own this season and is a reserve at that.
And where was Chicago's most celebrated player, sixth-man-of-the-year Ben Gordon? Scott Skiles, knowing his team was in need of offense from the tip-off, started him. And what a disaster that was. Gordon, who has won games almost by himself by scoring 20 or more points in the fourth quarter, took no shots the first half and committed five turnovers. The Wizards had Gordon to thank for both their fast-break baskets before intermission. It was as if the notion of starting the game freaked out Gordon completely.
It's one of the few mistakes Skiles has made all season. One would presume the Bulls with Gordon scoring no points at all would be in a heap of trouble. Maybe the Wizards presumed the same thing when clearly they shouldn't have. For one, the Bulls have played strange mix-and-match lineups all season and somehow gotten it to work just fine.
In this case, the Bulls who picked up the slack were Kirk Hinrich, who scored 22 points in the first three quarters, and Andres Nocioni who had been pretty much missing since his 25-point, 18-rebound masterpiece in Game 1 but scored 22 points in Game 6.
But the Wizards had a sense of determination not often seen here in recent years. "I'm happy for the city first of all," said the club's basketball operations president, Ernie Grunfeld. "And I'm happy for the players and our coaches. The knockout game is the hardest game, and the Bulls made it difficult for us. This is the first step in the process, the growing and learning process. I hope they celebrate tonight . . . and then it's back to work. We get Shaq next. And we'll be better off for that. We get to be on the big stage. That's part of the evolution, too."
It's an evolution that didn't seem like it was ever going to begin, even two games into this first-round series. Getting into the playoffs was the first goal. Winning a round was the second goal. The Wizards are playing with house money now. Maybe they can let it flow free and easy. Washington won a playoff game. Anything seems possible.