By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009
CHICAGO, Jan. 9 -- It's hard to imagine now but it was only four years ago that the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls engaged in an intense first-round playoff series that will be remembered for the game-winning shot Gilbert Arenas hit in the closing seconds of Game 5 at Chicago's United Center.
Now, the Wizards and Bulls are two struggling teams far closer to the draft lottery than an NBA championship. At least the Bulls, who improved to 16-20 with a 98-86 win over the flat Wizards on Friday night in the same building where Arenas hit his greatest shot, can still make a playoff run.
After losing consecutive games to losing teams while playing uninspired basketball, the Wizards (7-28) look exactly like what their record says they are: the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
Upset over a fourth-quarter traveling call that went against Nick Young or perhaps just deciding that he'd seen enough, interim coach Ed Tapscott came onto the court and earned his first ejection since taking over for Eddie Jordan on Nov. 25.
Behind Young, who finished with a career-high 28 points on 12-for-15 shooting, the Wizards made a push to draw as close as seven with just less than three minutes to play. But as has been the case all season, that couldn't make up for 3 1/2 quarters of lousy basketball.
The kill shot came when Drew Gooden followed a missed three-pointer by Ben Gordon with an offensive rebound and layup to give Chicago a 93-83 lead with 1 minute 26 seconds to play. Gooden was not boxed out.
The bigger issue was that the Wizards came out flat and trailed 30-16 after the first quarter.
"We got off to a bad start, which has been far too much of a pattern for us, and to our credit, guys hang in there and fight and make a run to get it back but the refrain is getting tiresome about falling behind and making a noble comeback and just falling short," Tapscott said. "That, after a while, is just another bad habit."
All-star forwards Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison combined to make five of 20 shots and score 14 points. Butler's two points on 1-for-8 shooting were a season-low.
"I think that's my worst game ever," said Butler, who was blanketed by Bulls guard Thabo Sefolosha in the first half. "In my life."
Gordon led the Bulls with 22 points and former Wizard Larry Hughes scored 17 off the bench. Chicago connected on nine of 19 three-pointers and held a 13-2 edge in second-chance points.
The Wizards trailed 52-34 at halftime after failing to attempt a single free throw, but that was less a reflection of the job done by referees Bob Delaney, Curtis Blair and Violet Palmer than an indication that the passive Wizards were too reliant on jump shots and played with a general lack of aggression.
"That was on us," Tapscott said.
They shot 43.6 percent in the half, missed all five of their three-point attempts and turned the ball over nine times. The Bulls didn't play particularly well, but they did play with more energy and effort, especially at the defensive end.
After Andray Blatche drew the Wizards within nine with a dunk with 5:53 left in the first quarter, the Bulls pushed the lead back to 16 by again clamping down defensively. In a sequence that summarized the game for Washington, Butler followed Blatche's dunk by missing a three-pointer, Javaris Crittenton missed a 22-foot jumper, Blatche traveled and then followed a Mike James make by missing a five-footer.
The Bulls shot 52.5 percent in the half, with their 21 field goals resulting from 15 assists. It's a tried-and-true strategy against the Wizards: move the ball two or three times and you can get any shot you want. The Bulls were happy to exploit it.
Young was the lone bright spot. After connecting on five of seven shots for 10 points through three quarters, he really got cooking midway through the fourth with a pair of layups.
It was his best performance since scoring 27 points last March against the Lakers in his home town of Los Angeles. It was also long overdue for a 2007 first-round pick who is being counted on to shoulder some of the scoring load in the absence of Arenas, who remains out indefinitely.
Arenas watched his team's latest loss from a seat on the bench Friday night, where he actively encouraged Young to keep attacking once he got on a roll.
"Man, I've been waiting for it," Young said. "It's been long, but I'm glad it came and hopefully it will get my confidence going more and more."