The hours leading up to last night’s Wizards vs. Bulls matchup had an ominous, mass-bearing feel to them. My team – my team – had done the improbable and stolen Game 1 of the series from a Bulls team that, while superbly coached, is frankly known more for attributes other than actually putting the ball in the basket. They’re “gritty” and “tough”, but they can’t score. They just get things done to the tune of 48 wins, nearly off of which were watched from the sidelines by their best player, Derrick Rose. And another key player? Jettisoned to basketball wasteland, Cleveland month ago.
So Game 2 loomed, and I saw how the Clippers bounced back and destroyed the Warriors by 40 points, and I was a little scared. I thought about the United Center atmosphere, how the team has embraced its underdog mentality after losing two starters, and thought they’d come out and smother the Wizards. No way the Bulls drop two straight home playoff games.
Winning Game 2 would be such a powerful statement for the franchise that it seemed almost too surreal to imagine. Maybe the team would be happy to return home with a split. I mean, that would at least tip home court advantage back the Wizards’ favor.
There’s something special about this team. Ernie Grunfeld, a person often maligned in this city, has assembled a roster with no glaring deficiencies and distinct ability to play through adversity. Where we’ve seen flashes of a team refusing to fold in spots during the season, we’re now seeing this propensity at full blinding flare during the playoffs. The Wizards have composition to cover for poor single player performances with solid contributions on both sides of the ball. Roles are clear and understood. On some nights, there are no multiple points of failure.
On Tuesday night, the Wizards did the improbable and won Game 2 of this opening round series against the Bulls. Here’s how it happened:
• The Wizards enjoyed a blazing start to the game, jumping out to a 17 point first quarter lead thanks to excellent shooting (over 55%) and great hustle for loose balls. John Wall and Brad Beal also had a much better shooting start, quickly putting to rest concerns about their poor Game 1 combined 7-25 effort.
• DJ Augustin, Chicago’s best scorer, saw early action thanks to Kirk Hinrich’s foul trouble and general ineptitude from the team’s offense. He immediately provided impact for the Bulls, scoring 11 straight points by himself, and turning the tide on what was becoming a lopsided first half performance by the Wizards.
• The Wizards’ bench, albeit shallow for this series so far, stepped up to keep the team afloadt during Chicago’s second quarter run. Trevor Booker provided good energy and an ability to get to the free throw line; and Martell Webster hit some key shots, after being essentially a non-factor in Game 1. With this left, couple with an excellent first half close by Wall, the Wizards took a 57-49 lead into halftime.
• The Bulls grabbed the lead back in the third quarter, thanks to their calling card: grit and hustle. In addition to Augustin’s hot shooting, Taj Gibson had an excellent game, adding 22 points 10 rebounds from Chicago’s second unit. Frankly, he outworked Gortat and whoever else was responsible for him. Gibson’s work is almost solely the reason the Wizards were once quadrupled during the game in terms of second chance points.
• The Bulls forced overtime, but once again their lack of offensive answers gave Washington the edge. Nene was steady and continued to take the elbow jumper that Joakim Noah gave him, and the Wizards as a whole played great defensively, anchored by Trevor Ariza, who completely stifled Augustin.
With a stunning series lead, Washington prepares for Friday’s Game 3, which will be played in front of what will be the loudest arena in all of sports. They’ll need to take Chicago out of the game early and remain steady in front of a raucous crowd. They’ll also need to get ahead of Tom Thibodeau’s adjustments, in what will be his one of his last two attempts to salvage an otherwise impressive season.
In past years, I’d worry. But this team is battle-tested, cohesive, and prepared to put more of the sports world on notice.