By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Tonight's game between the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls at Verizon Center appears to be a classic matchup between teams with vastly different agendas.
The Wizards love to put points on the board and have the league's second-best scoring attack behind the Phoenix Suns. The Bulls thrive on defense -- they rank near the top of the league in steals, rebounds and opponents' field goal percentage.
The Wizards ride the offensive brilliance of guard Gilbert Arenas. The Bulls are personified by the muscles and heart of center Ben Wallace.
Lately, both teams have thrived while playing their styles. The Wizards (19-14) have won 15 of their last 20 games, and the Bulls (20-15) have shaken off a 3-9 start to get within reach of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons in the tight Central Division.
The Bulls soundly beat the Wizards, 112-94, on Dec. 2 in Chicago, but since that night, Washington is 13-4.
"It's a measuring stick because it's two teams that are hot right now," Arenas said. "They're on a roll and we're on a roll. We're playing the best basketball of our year and they're playing the best basketball of their year. And then you have some bad blood from the playoffs a couple of years ago. We go at each other and it's going to be a good game."
Arenas was off in the first game against Chicago and finished with 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting. At that point in the season, the Wizards were clueless on the road -- the loss dropped them to 0-8 away from Verizon Center -- and Arenas seemed more focused on how a particular game was being called by the officials than anything else.
Since that game, Arenas has averaged 33.6 points and has been held to less than 30 only four times.
"It was just that time of the season when I was in that fighting-my-own-mind mode," said Arenas, who picked up his third Eastern Conference player of the week award on Monday. "Now my head is clear and I'm doing what I do best."
So are the Wizards, who have averaged 115.9 points since the loss to Chicago. Matching that output will be a challenge against a Bulls team that has held three straight opponents to below 40 percent shooting. Chicago's opponents are averaging 95 points per game, and the Bulls held the high-flying Suns to 41.4 percent shooting on Jan. 2, when Phoenix pulled out a 97-96 win on a last-second three-pointer by Leandro Barbosa.
The Bulls sprint back on defense, close out on shooters and protect the rim with Wallace.
"We didn't play very well and they took it to us," Coach Eddie Jordan said of the first meeting between the teams. "Our minds weren't in the right place. They hit us with some fast breaks and they took a lot of things away from us defensively. We have to keep our composure against their man-to-man defense. They take charges, they put ball pressure on you and they fight through screens. We have to run our offense and we have to rebound against them."
Said Antawn Jamison, "They are a tough, defensive-minded team, and those are the type of teams you have to be successful against if you want to have success in the playoffs."
As good as the Bulls have been, they are still prone to brutally cold shooting nights and have suffered their share of crushing losses, including a 91-86 heartbreaker at New Jersey on Friday when they lost to the Nets after building an 18-0 lead to start the game.
The Bulls also shot a season-worst 38.6 percent during Monday's 84-77 home loss to the Houston Rockets, a game in which they held a 10-point halftime lead.
One Bull who has consistently given the Wizards fits is reserve guard Ben Gordon. He came off the bench and scored 28 points in 29 minutes during the Dec. 2 win and averaged 26 points in three games against Washington last season.
Gordon, guard Kirk Hinrich and forwards Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni thrive in the penetrate-and-kick offense coached by Scott Skiles. The Bulls shot 50 percent and gave the Wizards fits by breaking down their defense with dribble penetration in the first meeting.
"We have to match their intensity at both ends," Wizards forward Caron Butler said. "We know what they like to do and they know what we like to do, so it's going to be a matter of who brings that energy right from the start."