CHICAGO — The Washington Wizards had to wait six years to get back to the postseason. But they only needed two games to really get introduced to playoff basketball, with more physical play, short tempers and extreme rallies. In the intense cauldron of United Center — a place that has devoured more seasoned units — the Wizards refused to relent after watching a 17-point lead turn into a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, and didn’t crumble when they were betrayed by missed free throws and calls that went against them.
The Wizards have been through several ups and downs during the regular season, and they staged a game against the Chicago Bulls that matched those emotional oscillations. Relying upon the scoring of its youngest player, Bradley Beal, and the guile of Nene, Washington took a two-games-to-none lead in this best of seven series with a 101-99 overtime victory in which it outscrapped and outwilled the Bulls.
“I wanted our guys to be greedy,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “Nothing is guaranteed. We’ve got two wins, you’ve got to get to four. We have to continue to understand how we won these games and the way we went about it.”
Beal scored a game-high 26 points and Nene scored 17, with six coming in overtime, as the Wizards accomplished their mission of returning to Washington for Friday’s Game 3 with two wins. Grasping to a two-point lead in the closing seconds, Nene fouled out while contesting Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich on a driving layup, sending the former Wizard to the free throw line with 2.4 seconds remaining.
Hinrich missed the first, then intentionally missed the second. John Wall grabbed the rebound and wisely threw the ball up the floor to run out the clock. Wall scored just two points in the second half, but he added seven assists, matching the game-high total of Trevor Ariza. Ariza only scored eight points but he helped hold Bulls’ leading scorer, D.J. Augustin (25 points) scoreless for the final 13 minutes of the game.
“Throughout the whole year, we’ve been growing and growing,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal, 20, said. “Now, in the playoffs, we’re playing for something bigger. It was our main goal coming into the season, but we’re not satisfied. We have higher goals and higher standards.”
Bulls guard Jimmy Butler gave his team an 87-77 lead when he hit two free throws. But the Wizards went on an 14-4 run. Beal scored nine points during the run and made a free throw to tie the game at 91. The Bulls had multiple chances to regain the lead.
Reserve Taj Gibson (22 points, 10 rebounds) grabbed two offensive rebounds in the final minute, snaring a missed jumper by Kirk Hinrich, and then another runner by D.J. Augustin. But he failed to cleanly control the ball and he lost his dribble near the Wizards’ bench. Nene wisely lunged to the floor and placed his hand on the ball, forcing a jump ball.
Gibson was clearly flustered and Nene took advantage, winning the jump ball. Wittman drew up a play for Beal to come around a Nene screen but missed a baseline jumper, sending the game into overtime. In the extra frame, Nene came alive, hitting a long jumper, throwing down a dunk and then hitting a step-back jumper with Joakim Noah, the NBA’s defensive player of the year, contesting.
Before the game, the Wizards spoke about not being satisfied with just one win in Chicago and they came out with a determination to knock out the Bulls early. Wall and Beal struggled from the floor in Game 1, but got the Wizards started out nicely. Wall made a jumper, Beal followed with a three-pointer and Nene hit another jumper as the Wizards scored the first seven points of the game.
“We have been building,” Wittman said after the game. “The last two years we have been in a lot of top-two defensive categories. This team has the belief and I am an old-school coach. I come from Bobby Knight. You had to play defense. I still think defense wins at this stage.”
Beal put the Wizards ahead, 15-6, when he corralled a pass from Ariza and threw down a two-handed dunk as a stunned sellout crowd looked on silently.
“He made some big shots for us,” Wittman said of Beal. “I was asked before the game if I was worried with what he shot in Game 1. I always tell our guys, ‘If you take the right shots, I never worry . . . make or miss.’ I know they will bounce back at some point. He did. He was very confident tonight. He stayed aggressive even with some misses. He made some big plays for us down the stretch.”
The Wizards wouldn’t let up in the first period, taking a 29-12 lead when Ariza knocked down a three-pointer.
The problems began for Washington Augustin entered the game and provided instant offense, scoring eight quick points to wake up the home fans.
Martell Webster put the Wizards ahead 45-32 with a three-pointer but the game quickly started to unravel as the Bulls’ relentless pressure and rough play started to wear them down. Ariza was attempting to throw an inbounds pass under the Wizards’ basket when Hinrich wrapped his left arm around Beal to keep him from running free. Beal lifted his arm to get separation from Hinrich, then chopped down, appearing to hit Hinrich in the face.
Hinrich responded by shoving Beal in the back and walked to confront him. Beal cracked a smile as players from both teams stepped in to diffuse the situation. Both players were assessed technical fouls and Beal was given a personal foul.
“The altercation with Kirk Hinrich, it was just getting tangled up,” Beal said after collecting only the second technical foul of his career. “But that’s playoff basketball. Everybody is fighting to win. He’s a smart player. It was nothing too serious. It happened in the flow of the game. We both got T’s and moved on.”
Augustin then buried a three-pointer to bring the Bulls within three points. Beal tried to answer with a long jumper and missed but he grabbed his own rebound. He then dribbled out and pulled up for a three-pointer that dropped — but Coach Randy Wittman called a timeout to negate the bucket. An angry Beal walked to the bench, where Wittman drew up a play that ended with Gortat getting a layup that put Washington ahead, 45-41.
The Bulls would keep charging, with backup Gibson punishing the Wizards on the offensive glass. He rebounded a Noah rebound and threw down a dunk that brought the Bulls within a point, but Wall had the appropriate response to end the second period.
Wall hit a 19-foot jumper, coerced Hinrich into fouling him on a fadeaway bank shot and added another short jumper to send his team into the locker room grasping to a 56-49 lead.
Ariza backed up to box out Noah and Noah raised his elbow toward Ariza’s neck. When Ariza answered with an elbow of his own, Noah shoved him but walked away shaking his head when Ariza stepped to him.
Noah was severely outplayed by Nene and Marcin Gortat in Game 1, with the Wizards’ big man tandem combining for 39 points and 21 rebounds. But Noah had no desire to get shown up again, especially on the night when he received the trophy for defensive player of the year honor. The Wizards were unable to keep Noah from providing his usual hustle and playmaking, and Noah was also effective slashing to the basket for layups. Noah finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, forcing Wittman to rely on Trevor Booker instead the ineffective Marcin Gortat to finish the game.
The Wizards pulled out the win despite missing 12 free throws.
“We’re still the underdogs,” said Wall. “It’s great to win two games on the road.”