By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – Taking a seat for a postgame interview on a dais that represents the chaos of the postseason, Washington big man Nene flashed a big smile and started in on the platitudes of what the Wizards’ 102-93 win against the Bulls in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Sunday night meant to him.
“It’s a magical moment,” he said. To play and win on an Easter Sunday that also meant so much to him was “a double bless,” he added his unique Brazilian accent.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Nene, who scored a game-high 24 points in his first start since suffering a knee ligament strain in late February.
Not long after, Nene then was asked what so many in Chicago must now be wondering.
Were your Wizards the overlooked team of this first round?
“Yes,” Nene said. “Yes.”
Lost in all the talk of the Bulls sliding into a favorable playoff position against an inexperienced and talented-but-sometimes-wild Wizards team was perhaps what’s now a sudden realization: With Nene healthy and flexing his muscle, literally and figuratively, this series is going to be every bit the dogfight and tossup that a potential matchup with the Nets would’ve been for the Bulls.
The Wizards and Bulls have now tangled four times this season – a respectable sample size by NBA standards – and there’s no denying the fact that Washington has given Chicago fits in winning thrice. And it’s this latest contest that should be the most concerning to the Bulls, as the Wizards received little from go-to guards John Wall and Bradley Beal, who combined to shoot 7-of-25 from the field and score 29 points, and fell behind by 13 points in the third quarter.
So when the Washington rally was completed with a bevy of open Nene baskets, a 30-point fourth quarter and tiebreaking 10-2 run late, it more than anything resembled a flip of the script. That was the type of game that a more battle-tested team like Chicago shouldn’t cough up.
“We’ve preached it all year long, that we’ve got to learn to win games when we don’t have our A-game,” Washington coach Randy Wittman said.
“We’ve shown that this year.”
Wittman deserves his share of credit for putting the Wizards in a position to win a choppy game Sunday. Few coaches have outmaneuvered the Bulls’ Tom Thibodeau this season, but for at least one night, Washington’s wrinkles left Chicago stumped and caused much of its problems.
Time and again, Wizards big men Nene and Marcin Gortat pressured Bulls star center Joakim Noah all the way out to the 3-point line. It’s a tactic few Bulls foes have utilized so consistently (off the top of his head, Taj Gibson could only remember the Nets doing so) because Noah is a 38 percent mid-range jump shooter and they’d rather keep an extra man closer to the paint. What the sagging defender allows, though, is space for the league’s best passing big man to operate in and see passing lanes through.
By flanking Noah far to the perimeter, Washington chose to make him uncomfortable as a passer (he had four assists and three turnovers) and forced Chicago off the dribble more often, which is one of its biggest weaknesses.
D.J. Augustin shot an ugly 3-of-15, Kirk Hinrich had the ball in his hands too much down the stretch and a team built on the identity of operating through Noah in the high post was out of sorts when it mattered most in the fourth quarter, hitting just two field goals in the final 5 minutes, 55 seconds.
“We just got to make our adjustment,” Noah said. “This is chess. This isn’t checkers.”
Thibodeau will surely make his moves prior to Tuesday’s Game 2. For his sake and the Bulls’, they need to be precise and the execution of them on point, or Chicago could be looking at a short postseason.
“We need to win,” Noah said. “We’ll figure it out.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.