Why the Bulls Were the Best First-Round Foe for the Wizards
As the Wizards approached their final stretch of the regular season, they were working to shape their playoff path. Although the fifth seed seemed most likely, the chance of sliding down a spot was possible, and Washington fans bickered about who the better, more constructive first-round matchup would be.
Amongst a varying tally, those who preferred the Bulls as the Wizards' first-round foe noted Chicago's inability to score consistently, while those in favor of another team, such as the Nets, mentioned Chicago's relentlessness and intensity on defense, which was plenty enough to scare away an inexperienced playoff bunch such as Washington.
It's a bit easier to talk about in hindsight, but with Chicago in the rearview and Washington preparing for the second round, a lot helps to explain why the Bulls were actually the ideal first-round rival for the Wizards.
Heading into the series, fans and media pundits talked most about intensity - and they were always sure to add how important it would be for Washington to match that of Chicago.
Surely the series win helps make a strong case for the Wizards in matching the Bulls' intensity, but it was also evident throughout each game.
When the Bulls came out on their home floor in Game 1 as bullies, the Wiz showed no signs of backing down and they snatched a road playoff game with a truckload of confidence.
When the Bulls took their home floor again in Game 2 coming off a tough loss - and oh man were they gonna be furious! - the Wizards stood their ground, punched back and outlasted Chicago in a two-point overtime victory.
When the Bulls entered Verizon Center in downtown D.C. for Game 3, fans who hadn't experienced a playoff atmosphere in six years made for a raucous and energetic crowd that helped propel the Wizards through a hard-fought game, despite the 100-97 loss. And, oh yeah, that whole Nene-Jimmy Butler head clashing bout took place - so take that matched intensity!
When the Wizards came into Game 4 without Nene, they played arguably their best defense of the series. Trevor Booker held his own with six offensive rebounds, Martell Webster chipped in with productive minutes of both ends and John Wall's funnel-and-bait technique on defense helped the Wizards force eight steals in the game.
And then, in what would ultimately become the series finale, the Bulls needed a win to stay alive and the Wizards wouldn't budge, holding Chicago to just 33 percent shooting from the floor at the United Center.
Simply put: this team got through the first round when no one expected them to. In the meantime, they played with just as much, if not more toughness than their respected Chicago counterpart, who themselves had an established reputation as being gritty and aggressive.
Yes, it's only one series. Yes, the Bulls aren't an offensive juggernaut. But overcoming a first-round series against a tough group of athletes led by a respected coach helps build the attitude and confidence necessary to carry a fifth-seed into second round and perhaps beyond.
Ranking in the top-10 in efficiency (104.6) this season, it was no secret the Wizards could play defense. Additionally, their matchup against a team with a severe shortage of offense would seemingly help to highlight Washington's ability throughout the series.
The Wizards exit this series having played incredible defense, holding the Bulls to just 90 points per game, 42 percent shooting from the floor and forcing nearly 13 turnovers per game. Not only are those numbers a solid foundation to build on throughout the playoffs, but the Wizards also seem to have found a rhythm on that side of the ball.
With just over eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Game 3, Nene scored a bucket, began his trip back down court and nudged Chicago's Jimmy Butler in the process. Butler returned a slight check to Nene's side and the two quickly met in an awkward forehead-to-forehead knot.
What happened next was a 24-year-old in his third season getting the best of a 31-year-old, 13-year veteran and winning the mind game, as Nene reached out with two hands and attempted to mush Butler's head toward the floor.
We can argue the inconsistency of suspensions dealing with issues like these all we want. We can also talk about how Chicago is the kind of team who can break you down and get under your skin. The important part however, as it pertains to the Wizards, is that the team was forced to play through adversity.
Playing without Nene may not have been a rarity for the Wizards - who actually rolled out a more commonly used starting-five from the regular season in his absence - but it was clearly a challenge. Taking into account Nene's effectiveness through three games, his size, his versatile skill set, and the fact that Chicago was riding momentum heading into Game 4, playing without Nene certainly didn't make things easier for the Wizards.
The result was typical of what you see from solid basketball teams. The Wizards banded together, stepped up in a huge spot and played defense to the tune of 16 forced turnovers, while holding the Bulls to just 89 points.
One can easily revert to the cliche athlete spiel, here - the Wizards haven't won anything yet - and they'd be completely right. But what the Wizards have done is trumped a scrappy Chicago team when no one gave them a chance, assuring their capabilities and fine-tuning their defense in the process.
With the Atlanta Hawks just one game away from bouncing the top-seed Indiana Pacers, the road to the Eastern Conference Finals would appear to be anyone's game.
Following their series win over the Bulls, Washington trails only Miami and Los Angeles as the most likely team in the NBA to advance past the conference semifinals at just under 53 percent, according to numberFire algorithms.
Oh, and the Wizards' shot at winning a title? Currently resting easy at 4.08 percent.
The Chicago Bulls may not have been a title contender, but there was no better first-round option for Washington in terms of preparing them for a deep postseason run. And seeing as how this franchise hasn't seen anything past the second round since before the Happy Meal was introduced and Jimmy Carter ran the show, Wizards fans have plenty to be excited about.