There were three minutes left, and you really couldn’t tell who was up or down 10. Because they were the ones pounding the boards as if this were their season, as if these were the last frantic moments the Wizards had to enrapture Washington and keep the season alive.
So relentless. Two, three and four shots at the basket, each player fighting through Carlos Boozer’s mounds of muscle or Joakim Noah’s serrated elbows. The Wizards scrapped for three offensive rebounds in one desperate possession — one involving Trevor Booker flinging the ball 20 yards over his head before he went out of bounds, a Hail Mary that ended up in John Wall’s hands in the back court for another opportunity.
Then, with a minute left, Wall bolted downcourt as if he were playing on a 10-day contract, batting the ball away from the Bulls’ D.J. Augustin, who was cruising in for a layup until the blur behind him ruined it for him.
You hear Coach Randy Wittman say “sense of urgency,” and your first inclination is to think how many times that coachspeak cliche has been used by everyone in sport — heck, in the preseason.
But then you get a day like Sunday, a sellout mob of 20,000-plus waving towels, howling, wanting so badly to believe those first two games in Chicago were not a mirage. And a group of committed pro basketball players with a healthy sense of fear who actually put those concerns to rest with their oh-so-insistent play.
You get the greatest postseason game of Trevor Ariza’s role-playing career — six devastating three-pointers — and every intangible imaginable to seize a commanding three games to one lead in an NBA playoff series for the first time in franchise history since — gulp — that championship season, 1978.
It’s too early to book a flight to Indiana or Atlanta for the second round, but it’s not too much of a stretch to see the Wizards taking their last trip to Chicago this season Tuesday night for Game 5.
Memo to network executives: This isn’t going seven.
And it’s not about the Bulls not having enough offense to get it there anymore; it’s more about the Wizards’ maturity and heart, which is beginning to match their talent.
Their stumble and loss of composure in Game 3 had no carryover Sunday. They moved the ball with precision and purpose; they didn’t caress the boards; they went Chicago-hard after every errant ball.
This wasn’t merely a “sense” of urgency, this no-Nene, no-problem, wire-to-wire, 98-89 Game 4 triumph Sunday that put the Bulls on the ledge and sent the Wizards improbably to within one game of their first series victory in nine years; it was urgency, distilled in its purest form. Hell, it was exigency and necessity and anything else the online thesaurus can find.
The desperation Wall, Bradley Beal and their nearing- or over-30-something crew showed throughout was really the portrait of a team down by 10 in the last game of their season — instead of a Wizards team up by 10, holding on to what was left of a 23-point, third-quarter bulge.
“It was a must win for us — if we lose this game, those wins in Chicago mean nothing,” said Marcin Gortat, who missed a ton of bunny layups but refused to let a tough day from the field keep him down.
Said Booker: “If we went back to Chicago 2-2, we really would have felt like all that work in the first two games meant nothing. We had to win this.”
You almost had to be there, but the whole afternoon had this win-or-go-home Game 7 feel to it as much as a Game 4 possibly could.
It was as if the Wizards knew they needed to get out fast and keep their foot on the Bulls’ throat because going back to Chicago knotted at 2-2 was knowing they could have just blown their season on their home floor in less than 48 hours.
The reason is, it’s highly unlikely but not entirely inconceivable for the Bulls to pull off a 3-1 comeback. Experienced, tested, tougher than cafeteria chicken, they went up 3-1 a year ago on the Nets, fell apart for two games and somehow had the moxie to win a three-overtime Game 7 in Brooklyn.
For the Wizards to give back home-court advantage — after two theatrical second-half comebacks in Chicago to open the series — that would have just psychologically put the Bulls into the driver’s seat in a best-of-three finish.
If Wall doesn’t get the first home playoff of his career Sunday, the Wizards likely lose this series.
But here’s the thing: Going up 14-0 and 19-4 early, turning the building into wall of sound that used to be the propriety of the Capitals for the past six postseasons, the Wizards didn’t even have to be told.
It wasn’t just Ariza’s money marksmanship; it was his super-adhesive defense. It wasn’t just an offense that shared and cared and valued every possession; it was so many little things.
It was Drew Gooden bodying up Taj Gibson while the Bulls’ fuel-injected forward backed him down in the post. When Gibson turned left toward the baseline, Gooden brought his right arm down like an anvil, stripping the ball from a guy who has been killing the Wizards on the offensive glass.
It was a play that no respectable broadcast entity will ever use as a highlight involving Andre Miller, who spotted Martell Webster sealing Augustin underneath the rim at the outset of the second quarter.
Now, Augustin is one of the few Bulls who can get hot and score. But he had two fouls already. Miller, at 38 years old almost a coach on the floor, knew this. He lobbed the ball over the top of the defense. Webster had position, Augustin could do nothing but foul him or else it’s a layup.
Just like that, one of Chicago’s only genuine offensive options had to sit the rest of the half with three fouls.
While the Bulls mounted a charge in the quarter, they had no proven scorer when they went cold.
Little things that made the big moment possible.
A Booker tip-in or two. That extra pass at the end of that half, from Wall to Beal to Ariza in the right corner in front of the Wizards’ bench.
When that three-pointer descended through the rim at the horn, the building went berserk. Everything the Bulls threw at the Wizards to claw back was nullified. Washington led by 15 at the break.
For all the first-this and first-that-since-thens, it’s simply a pleasure to watch a team anchored by a back court 23 years old and under play all grown up at the exact moments it needs to.
It’s a pleasure to watch an NBA team spin a town on its fingertips in the District again, a team that understands it has one win left to feel any real sense of satisfaction and that that satisfaction may well have never come if it did not play with the deliberate fire it did Sunday — the best day of a season that is suddenly headed toward May.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
More Wizards and NBA coverage:
Box score: Wizards 98, Bulls 89
Photo gallery: Scenes from Verizon Center