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.