Just because the Bulls put on a clinic in their last game against the Wizards, a 96-78 rout in Washington on April 5, they aren’t entering their first-round playoff series overconfident, especially considering that they were beaten in the first two matchups between the two teams in the regular season.
“I’ve always said this: During the regular season, there’s a lot of things that go into it. It’s where you are in your schedule, where they are in their schedule, who’s in, who’s out. There’s a lot going on. Just as I felt we were a different team in April than we were in January, the same thing with them. All I know is they played great basketball going down the stretch. They had a hell of a year. They have a great conference record. They’ve got a great road record. We know how good they are,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “When you look at that bench and they have two promising young stars in that backcourt, Ariza has been a very good player in the league for a long time, Nene has All-Star ability, Gortat, when you look at what he does, you can’t underestimate how good he is. It’s a deep team. Andre Miller is ageless. Webster is terrific. If you give him space, he makes you pay. Booker has been tremendous for them. They’re very, very good.”
Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer said the key to the victory earlier this month was containing the Wizards’ explosive All-Star point guard, John Wall, in fast-break scenarios.
“Just the transition, I would say. I thought they did a good job the first two games of setting the tempo. John Wall was pushing the ball a lot. I thought the last game we did a better job of containing him, especially the first two quarters and the fourth quarter. That’ll be the key to the series, stopping him in transition,” Boozer explained. “It’ll be a great series, man. They’re a good team, had a great year. We’re looking forward to getting out there and get the games going. We’ll see how it goes.”
Backup point guard D.J. Augustin, who will likely see some time trying to defend Wall, added: “We’ve got to help each other. Kirk and I, we have to do our part by pressuring him and just trying to stay on him, and our teammates are going to have our back, like Jo and the rest of them. They’ll be at the rim waiting for him.”
While Washington’s young and talented backcourt of Wall and second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal gets a lot of attention, and rightfully so, the Wizards’ veteran frontcourt is also capable of carrying the team.
Center Marcin Gortat, acquired early in the season from Phoenix, has had a solid campaign and Thibodeau cited the native of Poland’s offensive-rebounding prowess as something to be aware of for the Bulls.
“That’s sometimes a byproduct of their guard play. Gortat is tough. He has great hands. He’s strong. If he gets to his spot, he has very good touch, a great right and left-hand hook. He’s very good at basketball. If you cut, he’ll pass. He screens. He does a lot of things that make the team better and you can’t overlook that,” Thibodeau observed.
The coach’s own center, Joakim Noah, returned to Bulls’ practice Saturday after an excused absence Friday. Noah’s childhood coach, Tyrone Green, passed away, and the All-Star center went to New York to mourn him.
“It’s a tough situation. Everyone grieves differently,” Thibodeau said of Noah, who didn’t talk to the media. “I thought he was very sharp in practice today. Hopefully he’ll be fine [Sunday].”
Gortat’s partner on the interior, veteran power forward Nene, missed much of the tail end of the Wizards’ season due to injury, but returned recently, though he wasn’t immediately inserted into the starting lineup.
“Good player, man,” Boozer said. “He’s been a good player his whole career. He does a lot of good things for his team: good passer, good scorer, good rebounder. It should be fun.”
One thing the Bulls should expect from the Wizards is increased defensive attention focused on Augustin, who knocked down six three-pointers in the last game.
“Yeah, but I know it’s going to be different this time. They’re going to know all our plays and they’ll probably play me differently, and play everybody differently. So it’s going to be a tough series, they’re a great team and we’ve just got to be ready,” Augustin said. “If they try to pressure up on me, I try to get past them or get in the lane, either find a shot for myself or my teammates. I just want to be aggressive and just keep playing hard.”
Thibodeau chimed in: “Well, that’s who he is. I’m more concerned with him making the right play and that’s what D.J. has done. If he’s open, he’ll shoot. If he’s being trapped, or there’s a defender there, he’s going to move the ball. You can’t overlook his playmaking ability and I think he’s done a great job hitting the open man. He’s a guy that I think he’s made Jo a lot better. He finds Jo on the roll or the half-roll when teams are blitzing. I think he’s done a terrific job for us.”
As an aside, Augustin remarked that he’s surprised that, despite his outside-shooting ability, opposing teams continue to go under screens against him in pick-and-roll situations, perhaps fearing his quickness.
“Sometimes, just as far as scouting, because most of the time, when they go under on me, I shoot it. So when they go under, I am a little surprised but if they’re going do that, I’m just going to have to take the shot,” he said. “But since Day One, I’ve just been out there playing basketball. That’s how we play. We run plays, but at the end of the day, we’re just playing basketball.”
Thibodeau, who was once briefly a Wizards assistant coach—before joining Doc Rivers’ Celtics’ staff, he went to Washington as an assistant coach under Eddie Jordan, though he was brought in by Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld, whom he was familiar with from his days with the Knicks; he left the organization in less than a week—praised the job both Washington has done in rebuilding. The Wizards, once considered on the verge of being an Eastern Conference contender less than a decade ago, have endured a long playoff drought, starting with Gilbert Arenas’ recurring knee injuries, various personnel moves not working out and myriad off-the-court issues.
“There are things that happen that can change things. Gilbert getting hurt changed where they were. At one time, it looked like they were on the rise and moving in a great direction. They took some hits, navigated through it and are back on their feet and playing well. I’ve known Ernie Grunfeld for a long time. He’s done a great job there,” Thibodeau said. “Randy [Wittman, the Wizards head coach] is a good man. He’s been around the game a long time. I think he’s a hell of a coach. He had to navigate through a tough situation. He’s always got the most out of his teams.”