CHICAGO — Closeout night had come to The House That Michael Built. And after a combination of savvy, skill and a bit of sorcery made the Bulls disappear, the Wizards had one question left to answer before they returned to Washington, the same question every playoff team up 3-1 in a seven-game series must answer:
Could they handle prosperity?
Every crew that gets to the NBA playoffs has beat down adversity, but could John Wall and Bradley Beal, in their inaugural postseason, climb further and enlist their shop-worn veterans to become the first team in the 53-year history of the franchise to end a seven-game series in just five?
Could they handle all the haymakers a desperate team playing for its season would throw, a team that has become the NBA metaphor for resilience since Derrick Rose’s knee buckled three years ago?
“We handled everything,” Trevor Booker said in a very happy but not overly jubilant visiting locker room Tuesday night. “Everything, brother.”
And then some.
The Wizards, more often an NBA punchline than postseason threat the past two decades, arrived for good on the playoff landscape, beating the Bulls at their own game for the fourth time in the series, prevailing in a very Chicagoan 75-69 eyesore to advance to the second round against either Atlanta or Indiana.
Extra shots. Seminal offensive rebounds. And all the muscle and tenacity needed to compensate for 40.5 percent shooting from the field.
Wall and Beal were equally good, combining for 41 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, and Nene and Marcin Gortat simply wanted it more than their big-man counterparts from Chicago in the final two minutes, accounting for five offensive rebounds that killed clock, ensured more free throws and ultimately sent the Bulls off to an early vacation.
Nene finished with 20 points, feasting on a buffet of elbow jump shots given to him by a Chicago defense that waited for him to miss all series. He hardly did.
“You need to fail to succeed,” the 6-foot-11 Brazilian behemoth said. “We’ve been learning the last two years and now is our moment.”
In that charming broken English, Nene added, “We played our plan from the first game to the last game. We explored togetherness and I am really happy for Bradley and John because a lot of people said a lot of bad things about them, questioning how they would perform in the playoffs.
“I take my hat off to them. Their play was very energized. The sky is the limit for them. They play defense but they also trust each other. If we all work hard, we can do anything.”
Andre Miller won his first playoff series after 10 tries in 15 years, a milestone that all his teammates congratulated him on. And Randy Wittman won his first playoff series as a coach after having inherited many bad jobs over the years while trying to be the best teacher he could, hoping beyond hope the team he was with grew up before another coach was brought in.
In a year deemed “playoff or bust,” by their owner, Ted Leonsis, these Wizards did grow up.
“Coach, your guards are supposed to be too inexperienced to perform at this level,” a Chicago reporter asked Wittman in the news conference. “Were you surprised?”
“They are growing up, there is no question about that,” Wittman said. “I was not really concerned that this would be too big of a stage for them, you never know though. With the way they handled it, both of them being 18 or 19 years old when they came into the league, I knew they were a little different than other 18- or 19-year-olds.”
“We’ll look back on this, I think, as this group moves forward. We will get a big jump from this.”
He added, “I kept telling them, ‘I want you to be the desperate team.’ ”
That was the series in a nutshell, Washington’s ability to corner the underdog market. The Wizards took the Bulls’ heart in Game 2, a game they had no business winning. They became just the third team in NBA history to win the first two games on the road in a seven-game series.
No call went their way, no shot seemed to fall at the end except Beal’s in that game. But the Wizards persevered, found a way, returning home with a commanding lead they would not relinquish.
On Tuesday night in Game 5, they siphoned every ounce of energy out of the building early, going up 12. But by the time Jimmy Butler rattled in a three-pointer from the left baseline with 4 minutes 18 seconds left in the half, the Bulls had cut the lead to one.
This game was for the taking from then on, and it was just a matter of who would step up first and deliver the performance needed to either send this back for Washington for Game 6 or end it.
Nene and Gortat effectively took control of the boards in the final minutes. Gortat had three offensive rebounds by himself on one possession, the most effective clock-killing minute without a score the Wizards have had in maybe a millennium.
After it was over, they all embraced and congratulated each other for beating a higher-seeded team and showing the rest of the country they were now a bona fide playoff team, to be reckoned with from now on.
But they didn’t go overboard, didn’t whoop it up as if they had clinched a spot in the finals.
They seemed, as Wittman said, “greedy for more.”
“I know it’s coachspeak, but that’s what we are, we want more — we’re greedy,” he said.
They’re also very good, good as any team to close out a formidable competitor in five games on the road.
Scottie Pippen poked his head into the coaches’ room after 11 p.m. here, congratulating Wittman, his staff and team President Ernie Grunfeld.
“I like that team,” Pippen said. “Got a nice back court, some good veterans, some balance. I like that team a lot. Y’all are lookin’ a lot happier than you were eight months ago.”
Like three weeks ago, eight months ago seemed a world away Tuesday night. The growth in this series, the trust reaffirmed in just two weeks, was evident from Game 1 to Game 5.
It didn’t matter what was said about them or done to them on the floor. Book said it best, no?
“We handled everything.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.