Wizards forward Drew Gooden competes for a rebound with Chicago forward Taj Gibson and forward Mike Dunleavy. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

If they wanted, the Washington Wizards could blame their embarrassing 96-78 loss to the Chicago Bulls on being fatigued from playing consecutive nights – except the Bulls were in the same position and arrived at Dulles International Airport around the same time early Saturday morning.

They could point to the absence of their most talented big man, Nene, who played a huge role in leading the Wizards to two wins over Chicago earlier in the season. Or they could gripe about all the missed layups and open jump shots that contributed to miserable first half in which they scored a season-low 26 points and were a horrific 31 percent from field.

In the end, the Wizards’ only real explanation for no-showing in a game against a potential first-round playoff opponent was they simply got outclassed by a more determined team.

“You fight aggression with aggression. It was only a one-way fight,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “They came out and jumped on us right away. Either we were surprised or weren’t ready for the intensity that they came out and played with. I’ll take the blame for having our guys ready for it.”

With the Wizards trailing by 24 points with about five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the in-game host at Verizon Center told fans that the game was not over and encouraged them to stand up. Problem was, many of those left in the arena were already on their feet — heading to the exits.

The Wizards (40-37) got run out of their own gym and will have to regroup to hold on to their current No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference. They have set themselves up for a huge game Wednesday against the seventh-place Charlotte Bobcats, who defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers to clinch a playoff spot and move within one game of Washington.

With a loss against Charlotte, the Wizards would slide to seventh place because the Bobcats (39-38) would own the tiebreaker with just four games remaining. A win would give the Wizards a two-game lead and the tiebreaker.

Other than a brief third-quarter rally that saw the Wizards cut a 28-point deficit to 11 when Trevor Booker threw down a two-handed dunk, Washington couldn’t match the physicality of the Bulls. Reserve guard D.J. Augustin made six three-pointers, doubling the output of the entire Wizards team, and scored a game-high 25 points and all-star center Joakim Noah had 21 points and 12 rebounds as Chicago (45-32) avoided a regular-season sweep against the Wizards.

“We already knew, when you come to play these guys, you’ve got to come to play with intensity. You’ve got to play harder on both ends. We didn’t do that. And you’ve seen the outcome,” said John Wall, who had a team-high 20 points with six assists.

Marcin Gortat had 19 points with hundreds of fans from his native country cheering him during Polish Heritage Night, but only three Washington players scored in double figures.

Bradley Beal, the hero from a night earlier in New York, was unable to repeat his Madison Square Garden magic, scoring just 14 points on 7-of-16 shooting. Trevor Ariza, who limited Carmelo Anthony to just 10 points on Friday, was still struggling with the flu for the second night in a row and scored just two points on 1-of-9 shooting.

Dragging for much of the night, Ariza only appeared to come alive late in the second quarter, when he had his shot blocked by Noah and got into a heated exchange with Augustin that resulted in both players receiving technical fouls.

“Of course, a lot of people were tired,” Gortat said. “We have a few guys banged up and Trevor is still sick. End of the day, it’s not an excuse. We got to play, but again, this is a really good team. We still believe we can beat them. We did this already twice.”

Before the Wizards hosted the Bulls on Saturday night, Chicago had appeared to be somewhat of a favorable first-round opponent. Washington edged the Bulls, 96-93, on Jan. 17, when Nene recorded a game-saving block on Jimmy Butler as time expired. The Wizards also won the first meeting four days earlier in Chicago, 102-88, as Nene and Wall both scored 19 points.

Still sidelined with a sprained left knee, Nene is expected to return to action before the end of the regular season. But the Bulls team that arrived for the third meeting is vastly improved and tied with Toronto for the third-best record in the East. Three months ago, Chicago was still struggling to find an offensive identity and recovering from trading all-star forward Luol Deng to Cleveland. On Saturday, the Bulls repeatedly punished the Wizards, refusing to let them get comfortable in their offensive sets and forcing them to take terrible shots.

Chicago might've also sent a message about what would be in store in the two teams face each other in the postseason. By then, though, the Wizards hope to have a healthy Nene back on the floor to return the rough play.

“Nene gives us another facilitator and against a team like this, you need another one. Nene was another guy that can kind of play like Noah does up at the top, with the ball in his hands. But that’s not an excuse why we lost,” Wittman said. “I’d love to have him back, though.”