WASHINGTON — The Bulls couldn’t overcome a lackluster start to Sunday afternoon’s Game 4 at the Verizon Center, and even undermanned, the Wizards used a monster performance by veteran small forward Trevor Ariza to cancel out a career outing from Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson, leading to a 98-89 Wizards’ win, giving them a 3-1 first-round series advantage.
The Bulls got off to a disastrous start, facing a 14-0 deficit within the first four minutes of the contest. In addition to absolutely suffocating their guests on defense, the Wizards hit six of their first seven shots from the field, with Ariza (30 points, eight rebounds) leading the charge in the opening period.
Due to Jimmy Butler’s (16 points) aggressiveness on offense and All-Star center Joakim Noah (10 points, 15 rebounds, five assists) knocking down a pair of perimeter jumpers — his job was seemingly easier with the suspension of Wizards big man Nene for his Game 3 altercation with Butler, as well as Washington starting center Marcin Gortat (17 points, six rebounds, five assists) picking up two early fouls — things didn’t spiral further out of control. Additionally, Gibson (32 points, seven rebounds) provided his usual energy off the bench by making a big impact as an interior scorer, which helped make it a single-digit affair, but a brief Wizards run at the end of the frame put the visitors on the wrong end of a 28-18 score at the conclusion of the first quarter.
Three quick fouls on backup point guard D.J. Augustin, one of the scoring-challenged Bulls’ main offensive weapons, should have meant things would go even further downhill for the Bulls, but instead, they were able to trim the gap. Rookie Tony Snell, though it wasn’t reflected by his statistics, was solid in his minutes, as was starting floor general Kirk Hinrich, and Noah got back to being an all-around force, complementing Gibson’s go-to scorer role.
But as the second stanza went on, the Wizards gradually got hot with the explosive young backcourt of second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal (18 points) and All-Star point guard John Wall (15 points, 10 assists) doing damage and reserve sharpshooter Martell Webster also being a factor. While Gibson’s 20-point, 8-for-8 shooting offensive performance was remarkable, getting next to nothing from Augustin and the starting-forward tandem of Carlos Boozer and Game 3 star Mike Dunleavy Jr. contributed — along with the Bulls’ turnover issues, a slight rebounding deficit and Washington’s efficient shooting numbers — to a 55-40 disadvantage at the intermission, following an Ariza 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer, his fifth triple of the half in six attempts.
After the break, Ariza’s hot hand persisted, which didn’t bode well for the Bulls, but Butler, Boozer and Dunleavy, who was scoreless in the first half, emerged as scoring options. The Bulls’ push, however, was short-lived, as the balanced Wizards — Gortat and Trevor Booker, who started in Nene’s place, were both factors — saw their lead balloon against their visibly frustrated guests.
Boozer had a rough go of it on the defensive end, picking up all five of his fouls, including a flagrant against Gortat, in the third quarter, as Washington extended its winning margin to 21 points, the widest gap between the two teams of the day. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were behind, 82-62.
The fourth period saw Gibson, who amazingly didn’t take a shot in the previous frame, pick up where he left off — he made nine consecutive attempts to start the game — and eventually, the Bulls trimmed the gap to make it a competitive affair by the midway point of the quarter. As dominant as the Wizards looked at times earlier in the contests, they were just as careless in surrendering the lead and the Bulls, who if nothing else, have experience dealing with adversity, pounced, utilizing their trademark scrappy style of play and timely scoring from the likes of Noah, Butler and Augustin to complement Gibson’s yeoman-like effort.
As the game entered its stretch run, the Bulls struggled to get it into single digits, with Washington’s offensive rebounding plaguing them on multiple possessions, but a Gibson jumper with just over two minutes to play made it a 91-83 contest. That’s as close as the Bulls would get, however, putting them on the brink of elimination heading into Tuesday night’s Game 5 in Chicago.