October 23, 2014

OPINION: Wizards need Wall to elevate his game to go to next level

The Washington Wizards held a 19-point lead in the third quarter of their 95-92 Game 4 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Like Oklahoma City found out earlier in the day, no lead is safe in the NBA Playoffs. Unlike the Thunder, though, the Wizards are still waiting for their young superstars to really, finally and assuredly, lead this team to victory.

When the Wizards needed it most Sunday evening, head coach Randy Wittman turned to veterans Andre Miller, Drew Gooden and Al Harrington, with Bradley Beal reduced to more of a support role and John Wall — this team’s All-Star — planted firmly on the bench.

Miller, Gooden and Harrington combined for 28 points and twice led the Wizards to double-digit leads, only to see the starters hand that lead back over time. Gooden was +5 in 27 minutes, Harrington was +8 in 22 minutes and Miller, playing just under 16 minutes, was a whopping +18, while Wall, in 32 minutes, was -21 on the night.

You’ve got to give the Pacers credit. They realized what was working and kept feeding it, as Paul George showed why he was an early MVP candidate as he shot 12-for-20, including 7-for-10 from beyond the arc to finish with 39 points and 12 boards. Roy Hibbert had another solid performance late, with 17 and 9, and the admiration of those wearing stripes and doling out free throws.

The Pacers — the road team and No. 1 seed in the conference — went to the line 29 times in total, 10 more than the homestanding Wizards.

It’s hard to focus too much on Beal. He contributed 20 points, had five boards and five assists on the night.

Wall, on the other hand, was fairly ineffective. He finished with 12 points and seven assists, but on multiple occasions was reckless with the ball, seemingly afraid to drive to the bucket, and deferential when confronted with defensive pressure.

That he avoided taking a wide open 3-point shot with less than a minute left in the game trailing by three, instead dishing to a more covered Beal for the pressure shot, spoke volumes about where his confidence must be at this point.

The bottom line from Game 4 is when the head coach is relying on veterans like Gooden, Harrington and Miller in a must-win game, your young superstars aren’t quite ready for the next level.

If someone has said at the beginning of the season that the Wizards would give the No. 1 seed in the conference a headache in the second round, with a double-digit leads in all the games they lost, you’d have happily taken it.

Why, then, does it seem to be a huge letdown now as we’re experiencing it?

Wizards vs Pacers Game 3 Preview: Where Did John Wall Go?

On Friday night, the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the Indiana Pacers and the Washington Wizards heads to D.C. for Game 3 with the series tied at 1-1. The Wizards have been a team on a roll this postseason, but their brightest star has been rather quiet as of late.

In the regular season, All-Star third-year point guard John Wall averaged a team-high 19.3 points, 8.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game. His player efficiency rating (PER) of 19.6 was best on the team and he was the only Wizard to start, not just play, in all 82 regular season games.

Now that we’ve hit the postseason, however, Wall’s numbers have been on the decline. He’s averaging just 16.1 points per game and is shooting a mere 32-percent from the floor, including 16-percent from behind the arc. All three statistics are a far cry from the regular season where he averaged 43-percent from the floor and 35-percent from downtown.

When you break it down series-by-series, there’s a noticeable downward trend in some areas. After shooting 36-percent and averaging 18.8 points per game against Chicago, Wall is shooting just 22-percent and averaging 9.5 points against Indiana. He’s only averaging three rebounds per game, but to his credit his assists are up to 8.5 a game against the Pacers.

Where he has struggled to put points on the board, he hasn’t struggled to setup his teammates. Averaging 7.3 assists per game throughout the playoffs, Wall seems to share the ball best when his shooting is the worst. In his three worst shooting performances of the postseason (Game 4 against Chicago and Games 1 and 2 against Indiana), Wall is averaging nine assists per game.

It’s a testament to his selflessness and leadership, really, that a player that young in his first playoff appearance has the presence of mind understand when it just isn’t his night. However, at some point in their current series, it needs to become his night. Through two games against the Pacers, he’s just 6-for-27 with 19 points. Not to be overlooked, Wall is 0-for-7 from behind the arc.

Throughout the regular season, Wall was a player that Washington could rely on to carry the team when it was down. His ability to take over a game late and lead the Wizards to victory is what got them this far in the first place. It was much in part to his 24-point effort in Game 5 against Chicago that won them the game and the series.

Washington has proven that there are other players that can step up when Wall is having trouble scoring, but eventually that will come back to be the Wizards’ demise. While he is certainly doing a great job directing the offense and leading the team, at some point does Wall need to have a break-out 20-point game for them to advance to the conference finals.

Since being drafted first overall in 2010, Wall has been the leader of the Wizards and deserves much of the credit for their success. If they want to continue their success in the postseason, he’ll need to break out of the shooting slump he currently finds himself in. Should he do so, Washington has the ability to put away Indiana in a big way on Friday night.

Wizards Hand-Deliver Game 2 Victory to Pacers

Say what you will about Roy Hibbert’s 28 points and 9 rebounds, the Washington Wizards were not defeated by the Indiana Pacers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Rather, Washington simply lost the game. (Yes…there is a difference.)

The proof is in the pudding, folks, and it’s painfully obvious. Honestly, the fact the Wizards shot themselves in the foot as many times as they did and still had a chance to win should be very encouraging. As the series heads back to D.C. tied at 1-1, there is absolutely no reason to worry about this team.

After three quarters of play, Washington was down just four, 68-64. By no means had they played a solid three quarters of basketball, but Indiana had allowed them to hang around. For a team as explosive as the Wizards can be, that is the last thing you want to do.

Washington then opened up the fourth quarter on a 7-1 run to take the lead 71-69 with 9:00 left. The two teams then traded shots and with five minutes remaining, the Wizards were still up three. Already this postseason, they have proven they are team that can hang on to a late lead.

On Wednesday night, however, everything completely fell apart for Washington in the final five minutes of the game, mentally and physically.

Over the final five minutes, Washington went just 2-for-9 from the field including 1-for-5 from behind the arc. It was their unnecessary desperation on a sloppy sequence of possessions that ultimately did them in.

Down just three with 2:25 left, Washington then proceeded to shoot (and miss) a desperation three on each of their next three possessions. While you can argue that they were trying to tie the game, it’s also fair to say that there was no need for that kind of desperation with so much time left on the clock.

It’s not like the Pacers were scoring at will, either. On the other end of the floor, Washington played solid defense and held Indiana scoreless over that span of possessions. In fact, Indiana would score just four more points in the final 2:25 and two of those were free throws with 10 seconds left. The Wizards essentially spoiled all of their hard work done on defense when they had the ball on offense.

When you look at the box score, it’s obvious to see that the Wizards gave this one away. Washington shot just 5-for-12 from the free throw line while the Pacers shot 18-for-21. Wizards’ big man Nene failed to hit a freebie in his four attempts. For Hibbert, his breakout night continued at the line where he was a perfect 8-for-8.

Now let’s back up to the three-point line, a place where the Wizards also struggled mightily. In the regular season and throughout the postseason, Washington has been a reliable three-point shooting team. They shot 38-percent in the regular season, but that was certainly not the case in Game 2.

Collectively, they went 5-for-21 from behind the arc. John Wall missed all four of his three-point attempts en route to his underwhelming six-point effort. Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza combined to go just 4-for-13. In the regular season, both players shot 40-percent from downtown.

As stated at the beginning of this post, the fact that the Wizards still a chance to win this game in the final minutes is very encouraging. Even with all their struggles, they were able to keep pace with Indiana thanks in most part to their defense. While they struggled offensively, they did out-rebound Indiana (43-38), pick up five steals, three blocks and force seven turnovers.

The series now heads back to D.C. and there honestly isn’t much that needs to be changed with the Wizards. While they do need to figure out a defensive answer for Hibbert, much of their Game 2 problems were on the offensive end of the floor. In the final 2:25 of the game, it was a painful reminder of how young this team is as they fired bad shot after bad shot.

In Game 3, Washington simply needs to settle back down offensively. Set up the high screen and rolls and give Marcin Gortat (who poured in 21 points and 11 rebounds) and Nene a chance to hit those jumpers at the top of the key.

The Wizards just need to get back to what their good at, something that propelled them to their Game 1 victory and has brought them this far in the playoffs.

Wizards vs Pacers Game 2 Preview: Is Bench Play A Concern For Washington?

In Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Washington Wizards handily defeated the Indiana Pacers 102-96. They may have been separated by just six points on the scoreboard, but Washington took care of business like professionals on Monday night.

When it comes to the playoffs, your keys to victory are fairly simple. When you’re the road team, you can’t let the hometown crowd get inside your head. You need to play within yourself. It’s important to play your game and not get outside your comfort zone.

For the Wizards, they did all of those things and more in Game 1. They out-rebounded Indiana by nearly 20 and the play from the front-court tandem of Nene and Marcin Gortat was simply incredible. The duo combined for 27 points and 21 rebounds. All the while, the largest man on the floor, Roy Hibbert, was kept in check during his 18 minuets of play.

Hibbert’s postseason woes continued in Game 1. Save for his two blocks and one assist, it was a pretty dismal performance not worthy of the $14.2 million that he’s making this year. Not only did the All-Star center fail to score a point, but he also didn’t grab a rebound.

Where does that leave us with our keys to victory, then? If the Wizards won in nearly every facet of the game, then why even write a Game 2 preview? Doesn’t it seem like they have this series well in hand? Do they not have a weakness?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The one place where the Wizards could fall victim to the Pacers lies simply within the box score (numbers never lie).

With the exception of 12 points and 13 rebounds from Drew Gooden, the Wizards’ bench was largely ineffective on Monday night. Together, they put up just 15 points, 14 rebounds, one assist and three turnovers. Collectively, the Wizards scored a net of -35 points with their bench. On the other side, Indiana found a spark from their bench that kept them in the game.

For the 15 seconds that the Pacers had the lead in the second quarter, you can attribute much of that to the bench. They scored 17 points in the first half and were responsible for their early-second quarter charge. Indiana’s bench scored 33 points and the team scored a net of just -15 points with their bench players.

By no means was either bench outrageously effective, but there’s no denying that Indiana’s certainly beat Washington’s. While the starting five for the Wizards were no match for Indiana’s, the bench for the Pacers allowed them to hang around. Had the Wizards not made nine straight free throws to end the game, Indiana could have stolen Game 1 from them.

It was a rather uncharacteristically slow night from Washington’s bench. Trevor Booker, a hero off the bench in the Wizards’ Game 5 victory over Chicago, recorded a mere assist and two turnovers in nine minutes of play. Martell Webster, who has been able to provide one-to-two three pointers a game this postseason, missed on his only shot attempt in 16 minutes.

For as good as the starting five has been this season, the bench has also been there to pick them up when they are down. While Nene was out with an injury for much of the second half of the regular season, it was Booker who stepped in and provided eight points and six rebounds in 45 starts.

Likewise, Andre Miller has been a suitable replacement off the bench for Bradley Beal or John Wall. In fact, in the regular season, Miller’s PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 14.6 was actually .3 points higher than Beal’s. At 15.0, Booker’s PER was even better than that.

Washington has a golden opportunity on Wednesday night to push their lead to two games over the Pacers and be in complete control for another attempt at a series sweep in D.C. Indiana appears to be a frustrated bunch, largely in part to their non-existent big man. According to reports, David West was quite frustrated with Hibbert following their Game 1 loss.

Wall, Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene and Gortat will be physical and aggressive as always, but strong play from the bench in Game 2 would mentally take a toll on the Pacers. In their eyes, there would simply be no let-up in Washington’s game, and they would be on the defensive all night long.

With another strong performance in Game 2, Washington could head home with the Pacers wrapped around their finger. Tipoff is set for 7 PM EST in Indianapolis.

Wizards vs Pacers Game 1 Recap: Total Team Effort Leads To Victory For Washington

Despite several comeback attempts by the Indiana Pacers, the Washington Wizards secured early control of the Eastern Conference Semifinals with their fourth road win of the postseason, 102-96.

While the two teams were separated by just six points on the scoreboard, Indiana was only in front for a mere 15-seconds in the second quarter. Other than that, it was all Wizards, all the time.

Washington began the game on a roll and immediately made the hometown crowd a non-factor. Trevor Ariza nailed two of his game-high six three pointers within the first minute of the game to help lead the Wizards to an early 8-0 lead.

Behind 11 first-quarter points from Ariza, Washington found themselves up 28-15 entering the second quarter. As we’ve seen throughout the postseason, however, the Wizards have gotten into a bad habit of letting their opponents back into a game in the second quarter. As we saw Monday night, old habits die hard.

The Pacers started the quarter on a roll with a 14-2 run to take the lead 31-30 with 8:15 remaining in the period. As Washington was able to do throughout the contest, they responded with a run of their own to retake control. After trading shots over the next three minutes, the Wizards pulled away to end the half.

In the final five minutes of the first half, Washington closed on a 15-6 run to take a 56-43 halftime lead. Any sort of momentum that the Pacers had built, the Wizards had quickly taken away. Ariza and Bradley Beal combined to go 3-for-4 from behind the arc in the final push before halftime.

After building a 60-44 lead in the opening minutes of the second half, Indiana began to chip away at the Wizards’ lead. To finish off a third quarter in which the two teams combined for just 32 points, Lance Stephenson scored nine points in the quarter as the Pacers closed the lead to seven on an 18-9 run.

Once again, the Wizards responded. Thanks to two free throws from Drew Gooden (12 points, 13 rebounds) and a three from Andre Miller, Washington widened their lead to 12, 74-62. For much of the fourth quarter, it was a back and forth battle where the Wizards were able to match Indiana shot for shot.

With five minutes remaining, Washington had it’s largest lead of the half, 92-78. All things seemed to be going their way, especially after a technical fouled was assessed to Indiana’s David West. For a third time, however, Indiana began to claw their way back into the contest.

It wasn’t all due to an elevated level of play by the Pacers, unfortunately, as Washington made it’s fair-share of mistakes. Following West’s technical foul, Beal missed three free throws and the Wizards committed several turnovers. With just two minutes remaining, the Pacers were lurking down 10 points.

Washington struggled at the free throw line for much of the second half, but it was their ability to make their freebies in the clutch that iced the game. In the final minute, Indiana made four three pointers. While the Pacers were hot from behind the arc, the Wizards made their final nine free throws to stay out front and secure the victory.

The scoreboard doesn’t show just how much better the Wizards were on this night. Washington out-rebounded Indiana 53-36 and held the advantage in assists 23-16. They made 10 threes and shot 41.7-percent from the floor.

Possibly the biggest advantage for the Wizards was the biggest man of the floor, Roy Hibbert. In 18 minutes, Hibbert failed to score or grab a rebound and committed five fouls. In the paint for the Wizards, Nene and Marcin Gortat combined for 27 points and 21 rebounds (15 rebounds for Gortat).

The front-court battle was also won by the Wizards. While George Hill had 18 points, it’s important to note that six of those came in a meaningless final-minute rally. Paul George finished with 18 points, but Ariza bested that with 22 points of his own.

A new dynamic duo is forming in the NBA with Beal and Wall. Beal poured in a game-high 25 points, seven assists and five steals. While Wall scored just 13 points on 4-of-14 shooting, he recorded a game-high nine assists. Wall was the leader on the floor and Beal took advantage of the opportunities created by him.

Washington is a perfect 4-0 on the road in the playoffs and certainly didn’t seem phased by the Indiana faithful on Monday in their Game 1 victory. The series stays in Indiana for Game 2 on Wednesday night. Tipoff is set for 7 PM EST.

Washington Wizards vs Indiana Pacers Game 1 Preview

On Monday night, the Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers will go head-to-head in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup. Series features teams that seem almost opposite of each other.

On the one hand, you’ve got the youthful and energetic Wizards. On the other, you’ve got the question mark that is the Pacers. After dominating for much of the regular season, they slowed near the end, but still entered the playoffs as the number-one seed in the east. For the Wizards, they fought tooth and nail all season long for their fifth-seed.

The Pacers biggest asset, literally, has been seemingly invisible this postseason. After averaging 10.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in the regular season, 7-2 center Roy Hibbert has barely managed half that in the postseason. Defensively, he hasn’t been effective as his blocks and steals are half that of his regular season averages, as well.

That could very well be where the Wizards hold the upper hand in this matchup. While John Wall and Bradley Beal have been a back-court duo to be feared, the impact that Nene and Marcin Gortat can have on this series is undeniable. The Wizards’ big men have both seen a minutes increase in the postseason and they are making those minutes count.

Gortat has been averaging nearly a double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds per game this postseason. His heart and hustle in the low-post has been very beneficial for Washington. In their series-clinching Game 5 win over the Chicago Bulls, Gortat grabbed 13 rebounds, a playoff-high for him.

Just as important, if not more important, has been the play of Nene. After scoring 24 points to lead the Wizards to their Game 1 victory in Chicago, Nene then cooled a bit to score 17 and 10 points in Games 2 and 3. After serving his one game suspension, Nene returned with a vengeance to drop 20 points, grab seven rebounds and dish four assists in the decisive Game 5.

The one player on the Pacers’ front-court that Washington will need to defend and defend well is David West. The 10-year veteran power forward is averaging 13.4 points per game this postseason, highlighted by a 24-point performance in Game 6 to stave off elimination. It’s also important to note that Hibbert did have a 13-point game in Game 7, so it should be interesting to see if that’s the start of something big for him.

For the Wizards, the fact that they got out of the first round is a shock to many. As highlighted by the team’s Twitter page shortly after their series victory, all but one of the experts at ESPN had Chicago winning that series. Much of Washington’s success, however, was due to their ability to eliminate home-court advantage.

The series will open up in Indiana, but Washington has proven that playing on the road doesn’t phase them. They are 3-0 on the road this postseason and outscored the Bulls 278-261 in Chicago. That is no small task in front of the playoff atmosphere you usually find from the hometown crowd.

The last time the Wizards made the second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, they were swept by the Miami Heat in 2005. If you want to find their last berth in the conference finals, then you need to go all the way by to 1979 when they eventually lost to the then Seattle Supersonics in the NBA Finals.

The second round of the playoffs start Monday night. Tipoff for Game 1 is set of 7 PM EST in Indiana.

Nene Leads Wizards Past Bulls in First Round of Eastern Conference Playoffs

With Nene back in their lineup, the Washington Wizards defeated the Chicago Bulls 75-69 in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Playoff series to advance to the second round of the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2005.

Nene established himself early on for the Wizards in the closeout game. After his ejection in Game 3 rendered him suspended for Game 4, he returned with a vengeance on Tuesday night. He made his presence felt early for Washington and flexed his muscle throughout the game.

In the midst of a back and forth battle between the two teams, the big Brazilian registered his first of six first-quarter points just a few minutes in. For a couple of teams that have thrived off of their defensive play this season, there wasn’t much of it from Washington and Randy Wittman took a timeout with 4:58 left. After the timeout, the Wizards began to turn up the heat.

Thanks in part to four points off the bench from Trevor Booker, the Wizards closed out the quarter on a 10-5 run to take a 23-15 lead into the second quarter. Washington shot an impressive 55-percent from the floor while the Bulls shot an uninspired 26-percent. The crowd was out of the game and everything looked to be going the Wizards’ way.

In the second quarter, it was an entirely different game. After shooting a low percentage in the first quarter, Chicago couldn’t miss in the second. At one point, Washington found themselves on the wrong end of a 21-9 run. Thanks to a John Wall and-1 in the final minute, the Wizards survived the second quarter surge to be tied with the Bulls 41-41 at the half.

Washington then came out of the gate strong for the third quarter and relied on Nene to carry them. Washington outscored Chicago 20-11 in the period and eight points were from Nene. While the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah tried his best, he was no match for the Wizards’ big man.

As Washington took a 61-52 lead into the fourth quarter, it became clear early on that the Bulls weren’t going away quietly in front of the hometown crowd. Chicago opened up the quarter on a 7-4 run including an and-1 play from Taj Gibson. Just minutes after he made the play, Gibson was removed from the game with an ankle injury.

The Wizards struggled to shoot the ball in the fourth quarter (just 5-of-18), but was able to fall back on heart and hustle to win the game. Booker, Marcin Gortat and Nene were all over the court winning the loose balls and creating second-chance opportunities. The trio combined for eight rebounds and countless hustle plays that won’t show up in the stat sheet.

Possibly the biggest play this season for the Wizards is one of those plays. With just over 16-second remaining, Andre Miller went to the line with an opportunity to make it a two-score game and all but seal the victory. He missed the first, and then following his miss on the second free throw, Nene back-slapped the ball out to Bradley Beal. Beal went on to sink his pair and seal the win.

Nene finished off the contest with 20 points to go along with seven rebounds and seven assists. Wall dropped a game-high 24 points and added just as many rebounds and assists as Nene. Beal poured in 17 points and Gortat led the Wizards with 13 rebounds. It was a total team effort as each man provided quality minutes.

Washington will now face the winner of the Indiana Pacers-Atlanta Hawks series. Currently, the eighth-seeded Hawks lead the top-seeded Pacers 3-2. On Thursday night, the two will face off in Indiana for Game 6 at 7 PM EST.

Wizards vs Bulls Game 5 Preview: Expect A Physical, But Focused, Washington Team

On Tuesday night in Chicago, the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls will add a fifth chapter to their epic NBA Eastern Conference Playoff series. After a convincing 98-89 win last Sunday, the Wizards are poised to win their first postseason series since 2005, the last time they faced Chicago in the playoffs.

After picking up the first two games of the series on the road, the Wizards then split their two-game home stint. The first home playoff game since 2008 was highlighted by Nene’s ejection for a scuffle with Chicago’s Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter. While they were without the Brazilian for Game 4, they still picked up the victory in a rather authoritative manner.

Even though they found plenty of success without him, the Wizards are adamant that they need their big man back. After all, it was his 24 points and eight rebounds that propelled them to victory in Game 1.

“Of course we need him,” Marcin Gortat told reporters. “He’s a great basketball player. He’s so powerful and he dominates his position.”

As the series heads back to Chicago, the physical nature of this series will only intensify. With the exception of Nene’s ejection, it’s been the Bulls playing the role of aggressor. One area where they have really tightened things is up in the paint. They’ve adjusted to crash more on defense, especially when the ball finds Nene.

That kind of power and physicality that Nene brings to the floor is going to be ever more needed in what is expected to be an intense Game 5. Already this series, we’ve seen emotions run high. While the Wizards managed to win Game 2, it was certainly a hard fought victory.

“There’s going to be rabid fans [Tuesday], worse than it was in Game 2,” head coach Randy Wittman said. “It’s going to be all ramped up.”

As the Wizards are up 3-1 in the series, the odds certainly seem to be in their favor. Just eight teams have come back from being down 3-1 to win the series. For the Wizards, they’ve got a friendly reminder in their locker room to not fall victim to that.

“I’ve been in this situation before in Orlando being up 3-1 to Detroit,” said Drew Gooden referring to the Magic’s 2003 series with the Pistons. “We know that [Game 5] is a must win for us.”

Getting Nene back and heading on the road, a place where Washington has seemed pretty comfortable this postseason, certainly bodes well for the Wizards. It’s no secret that the Bulls will come scratching and clawing as their backs are against the wall.

At just 23-years of age and in his first ever elimination game in his brief three-year career, point guard John Wall is taking a veteran-like mindset to Tuesday night’s game. While it would be easy for a player with his inexperience to get caught up in the hype, the team leader is staying focused on the task at hand.

“You still haven’t done anything until you win four games,” Wall told reporters. “The main thing is to focus on what we’ve been doing and try to win.”

Washington Wizards Game 4 Recap: Ariza’s 30 Helps Wiz to 3-1 Series Lead Over Bulls

As thousands in the Verizon Center chanted “Free Nene” in honor of their suspended forward, Trevor Ariza carried much of the weight in the Washington Wizards’ commanding 98-89 win over the Chicago Bulls Sunday afternoon.

Ariza recorded a career playoff-high 30 points, completing six of 10 three-pointers, while Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat and John Wall added 18, 17 and 15 points, respectively.

As Nene served his one-game suspension for grabbing Jimmy Butler’s head in an argument during the Wizards’ Game 3 loss, the Wizards looked to get an early jump on the Bulls in Game 4 to erase any doubts of their ability to carry onward.

They did exactly that – tallying the first 14 points of the game before Chicago could respond.

“Well, we were locked in,” said Wizards head coach Randy Wittman after the game. “I could tell our focus was back yesterday, even with the news of Nene when it came of being suspended. I saw our guys bond together like ‘That’s okay, big fella’s not going to be here, but that’s okay.’ We were in tune right from the start. Extra passes and simple plays, those are the things these guys are going to get tired of hearing me say. They probably can’t wait until this series is over because those are the things I’ve used with them in this series. Make the simple play. Make the easy play and we did that at the start of the game. We got a lot of different guys scoring and when we move the ball like we talked about in Game 3 at the third quarter where we stopped – the ball stopped and people stopped. We can’t play that way and we didn’t fall into that tonight.”

Perhaps even more, Washington enjoyed a tremendous advantage from behind the arc – going 8-for-19 compared to the Bulls’ 4-for-19.

Chicago power forward Taj Gibson did his best to keep his team in the mix, posting 32 points in 32 minutes on the floor, while adding seven rebounds. But, only Butler and Joakim Noah rounded out the Bulls’ double-digit-points club on the night.

The Bulls actually shot with greater efficiency – making 35 of 78 field goals to reach a 44.9 shooting percentage, compared to the Wizards’ 40.7 percent. But, they lacked execution from Game 3 star Mike Dunleavy, as well as Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich.

As has been the case throughout much of the series, the Wizards seemed on pace to run into foul trouble as four players recorded two fouls apiece before the start of halftime. They settled down, however, despite Trevor Booker earning a technical foul from the bench.

Washington cruised to a 28-18 lead to end the first quarter, but the Bulls regained some ground to pull within four points with 7:09 remaining until halftime. From there, Wall sank a jumper before Beal went back-to-back for a combined five points. Gortat rounded out the miniature run with a jumper that put the Wizards back in front by 13 points.

In fact, for the final 3:32 of the half, the game very much consisted of Gibson versus the Wizards. Only Gibson posted baskets for the Bulls – three, to be exact – while the Wizards added another 10 points to their total in the same time frame.

Just as they did in the second quarter, the Wizards outscored the Bulls 27-22 in the third.

In the fourth, the Bulls jumped on a 16-7 run, sparked by early baskets from Gibson and Tony Snell. But, the game ended much as it begun – with powerful drives from Gortat, Ariza and Beal – to hand the Bulls their 98-89 loss.

“I know a lot of people probably doubted us,” Beal said. “We did a great job coming out and focusing in. It started with our defense like [John Wall] said. Once we got out to that 14-0 run at the beginning of the game, we just took off from there. Yeah, [the Bulls] went on that run, but I think we did a great job of staying poised the rest of the game.”

“In two and a half years, we’ve grown and developed those intangibles, you talk about, not just the skill level, but playing the game the right way, doing the right things off the floor as well as on the floor, being professional, as I like to call it,” Wittman said. “I think now these guys are just playing basketball, they understand that this is a job. Playing games like this helps that. Like I said, we haven’t done anything yet. We’ve put ourselves in a position to do something but we have yet to do anything.”

Worth noting is that the Washington Wizards franchise boasts a 5-0 record in closing out a best-of-seven playoff series after taking a 3-1 lead. This record has held true through 1971, 1975, 1978 (twice) and 1979.

Wizards vs Bulls Game 3 Preview: 5 Keys to Victory for Washington

On Friday night at 8 PM EST in the Verizon Center, the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls will add a third chapter to their highly contested Eastern Conference Playoffs series.

This past Tuesday night, it took some late game heroics from young Bradley Beal to bring the Wizards to victory. Now up 2-0 in a playoff series for the first time since 1982, Washington has a chance to take a stranglehold on this series. If they want to do just that, here are their five keys to victory.

Key Number 1: Fast Start

The Wizards raced out to a 17-point lead on Tuesday night in Chicago and immediately took the hometown crowd out of it. This will be the first time since 2008 that D.C. has hosted an NBA playoff game, so you know the “Phone Booth” will be wild and crazy. A fast start will keep the crowd into the game and make things that much harder on the Bulls.

Key Number 2: Three-Point Shooting

If Game 3 comes down to which team shoots the three better, then Washington can win the game handily. In their explosive start to Game 2, they shot 5-of-8 from behind the arc. The Wizards made nine threes, including four from Beal, in their overtime win on Tuesday night. If they can continue to shoot well from downtown, they’ll take care of business.

Key Number 3: Make The Free Ones

After shooting 74 percent from the free throw line in Game 1, Washington managed just 57 percent in Game 2. Had they made their free throws in the second half, Tuesday’s would have never gone to overtime. If the Wizards can make the freebies, they should have no problem taking Game 3.

Key Number 4: Front-Court Play

After combining for 39 points and 21 rebounds in Game 1, the front-court duo of Nene and Marcin Gortat contributed just 24 points and 12 rebounds in Game 2. Luckily for Washington, the guard play was much improved and they picked up the slack. Nene played well in the first quarter and overtime of Game 2, but Washington will need him playing like he did in Game 1 for them to have their best shot at winning.

Key Number 5: Guard Play

Note that that doesn’t say back-court play, but rather guard play. More specifically, this is referring to John Wall and Beal. While they totaled 29 points in Game 1, Game 2 saw them pour in 44 points. As mentioned in key number four, the front-court struggled, but that back-court picked up the slack. If Beal and Wall can duplicate their Game 2 efforts Friday night, Washington should take care of business.

With a win on Friday night, the Wizards will have a chance to sweep Chicago out of the playoffs at home in Game 4. If they can take care of these five keys, then Sunday night’s game will be an exciting one for D.C as they’ll try to win their first playoff series since 2005.

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