For the majority of the night, it looked as if the Chicago Bulls, playing at home in the United Center, would be able to hold serve in grabbing a win over the Washington Wizards, but when the dust settled, the 5th-seeded Wizards ran away with a 102-93 victory marked by an impressive second half run.
To open things up, the Bulls and Wizards played a half that was worthy of their reputations. It was ugly at times, it was well-executed at times, but Chicago cruised into the halftime break on the strength of balanced shooting and with some help from the Wizards. Washington shot just 12 for 21 from the free throw line in the first half (yikes) and even with their production looking solid on paper, the backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal combined to shoot just 5-for-17 from the floor in the first 24 minutes.
After the break, it looked as if the Bulls were going to run away and hide a bit, at least in the early going. Chicago extended the lead to as much as 13, and when Mike Dunleavy knocked down a three (his 3rd of the night) at the 6:54 mark of the 3rd, the Bulls had all the momentum. However, Washington wasn’t going away quietly, and the Wizards sprinted to a 13-2 run that caused Trevor Ariza (who has a stoic reputation) to explode with emotion and the usually level-headed Kirk Hinrich to garner a technical foul. When the dust settled on the spurt, it was a “new game” with the home team leading by just 1 point, and it was on from there.
The final 15-plus minutes of play were marked by the fact that the Bulls could never extend their lead above 5 points when they had the chance. Washington threatened (repeatedly) to grab the lead for the first time in the half, and they finally broke through on a Trevor Ariza free throw with 4:17 remaining in the 4th quarter. The script was flipped at that point, as the Wizards rode their frontcourt to a 92-88 lead after a jump shot from Nene and the Bulls would never reclaim the lead despite the closeness of the margin. Washington led by only 4 as the clock ticked under a minute to play, but when Marcin Gortat connected on a short jumper, the lead was 6 and the door was slammed.
Washington was able to generate all kinds of consistent offense, and that was the name of the game against the always stingy Chicago defense. The Wizards were led by Nene, who finished with 24 points and 8 rebounds, and Gortat, who added 15 points and 13 boards, but it was an altogether balanced effort. Washington placed six players in double-figures, including Andre Miller with 10 points in 13 minutes off the bench, and the road team shot an impressive 49% from the floor despite their starting backcourt combining for just 7 makes on 25 attempts.
The Bulls did a reasonable job on the offensive end in their own right, placing seven players in double figures, but they weren’t nearly as efficient as Washington, and the Wizards clamped down defensively in the second half. DJ Augustin and Kirk Hinrich tied for the team lead in scoring with 16 points, but Augustin was generally horrid offensively (3 for 15 from the floor, 0 for 4 from three) and that’s tough to overcome.
Now, the Bulls will have all of the pressure as they host Game 2 on Tuesday night, and the Wizards are suddenly in the driver’s seat with home court advantage and all of the momentum. Stay tuned.