CHICAGO — The late-game images were so telling: Trevor Ariza chasing down D.J. Augustin from behind with two minutes left, swatting the ball off the glass. Every offensive possession treated not just carefully down the stretch but almost treasured, until someone had a wide-open look or a layup or ended up at the free throw line.
The Wizards didn’t merely win Game 1 of their first playoff series in six years; they out- Chicagoed the Bulls.
They beat the grittiest, non-prettiest team in the league at its own game Sunday night, seizing home court in the best-of-seven affair on the Bulls’ home floor.
Down 13 on the road less than three minutes into the second half, no one would have been surprised to see John Wall, Bradley Beal and their teammates go down hard to the Bulls and regroup for Game 2 Tuesday night at United Center.
Not even Andre Miller would have blinked. “We could have easily got down 20,” the old-as-time point guard said in the victorious visiting locker room after Miller and his teammates calmly found their way back in and closed out Chicago, 102-93, with a rousing fourth quarter.
“But we didn’t,” Miller said. We found a way to get back in the game. That was good for our confidence.”
It wasn’t just good for the Wizards, it was a frightening harbinger of possible things to come in the next few games for the Bulls.
As first impressions go, here’s the clearest takeaway: Despite two young guards in their maiden postseason, Washington has the offensive ammunition and veteran patience to come back from a double-digit lead and find a way to stave off easily the most determined unit in the NBA the past few postseasons.
The Bulls may have the veterans, they may the patience. But they simply don’t have the firepower to come back quickly on a team that opens a double-digit lead. Tom Thibodeau’s best bet with his team is to blow out the Wizards and try to keep them down, which didn’t work in Game 1, or win a close one with all the guile and grit the Bulls are known for in the final minutes.
Otherwise, the Wizards are looking pretty. Think about this: Wall and Beal missed a combined 18 of the 25 shots they took and it didn’t matter. The most potent back-court combo east of Golden State couldn’t find its range or rhythm for any prolonged stretch and it did nothing to take away from a stellar team win.
Nene was so nice. He had started quick and finished even better, scoring 24 points on a buffet of 15- to 18-footers from around the perimeter. He outscored Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah by three points and worked a beautiful two-man game with Miller during a critical juncture of the fourth quarter.
Wall was just as good as he had to be, actually. There were less than five minutes left in Wall’s first playoff game, and the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft took the floor with his team trailing by a point.
United Center was shaking. Guns N’ Roses was pulsating through the arena speakers. If there ever was a time to feel pressure in his NBA career, this was it.
Instead, he let his teammates take over. Ariza found Marcin Gortat for a layup and a lead. He took what the defense gave him.
Look, this win can’t be overstated. It was Washington’s first Game 1 playoff series win since, yes, 1986. And they beat some NBA ruffians at their own game.
Since Michael Jordan left and especially since Derrick Rose went down, they love ugly here. Give these Bulls the choice between winning a stop-and-pop, transition game in the 100’s or a 71-69 piece of sludge, they will always take sludge.
From Noah to Boozer on down to Kirk Hinrich, they are all nasty, brooding Brahmas disguised as basketball players. They can’t score, so they scrap. And scrap.
Until a weaker-willed team backs down. Starts giving up second shots. Balks at going to the basket for fear of an elbow penetrating their esophagus.
The worst thing any team can do is fall in love with their jump shot on the road against this team.
And the Wizards never fell into that trap. They got down, but they didn’t panic. They looked like the mature, more poised team down the stretch. They looked like the Bulls.
“They take things away, but we find ways to score,” Ariza said. “We’re a basketball team with, I think, a high IQ. We have a mature group. Even though we have some young players, they’re pretty composed. They understand this is a series and not just one game. So we don’t even have to say anything.”
It’s one game, sure. But it’s also a series-opening statement by a group that was thought to be too green and not yet playoff-seasoned enough to mount a serious challenge to Chicago.
You out-Bull the Bulls in Game 1, though, you’re doing something tremendously right.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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