As much as common wisdom has the Bulls triumphing over the Wizards in the two teams’ first-round playoff series because of Washington’s supposed inexperience, that perception isn’t really accurate.
While the Wizards’ young backcourt of All-Star point guard John Wall and Bradley Beal are 23 and 20, respectively, the rest of Washington’s rotation is mostly composed of veterans. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t have to be reminded of that fact.
“I think they have a lot of experience also. When you’re young like Wall and Beal, they have college experience where they played in big pressure games. The rest of their team is experienced. [Marcin] Gortat has been around and been in a lot of big games. Andre Miller has been in a lot of big games. They have a number of guys—Al Harrington is another—that have been in big games. That team is well put together. They’ve got a good blend of young and old. You can’t overlook the importance of having veterans on your team. They’ve done that. When you look at their second unit, and it’s Andre Miller, a [Martell] Webster, a Harrington, a Nene, those guys can start for a lot of teams,” the coach explained after the Bulls’ practice Friday at the Berto Center. “I think they have good mix of guys. They’re young guys who obviously haven’t been in the league. You have to get experience sometime. I think what they’ve shown you is how much they’re grown. When you look at Wall and Beal, they’re terrific. A guy like [Trevor] Ariza has been around. Nene has been around. Miller has been in a ton of games. Harrington has been in a ton of games. So I think they have a good blend. I’m not buying [the inexperience angle]. Gortat has been deep in the playoffs. The notion that they don’t have experience, I don’t think that’s reality. I think they have a good blend. Their team is very well put together. They have a lot of experience actually. I think that was one of the big things that helped them, the addition of the veterans they have. Wall and Beal are still young, but they’ve surrounded them with veteran leadership.
“They’re a terrific team. They’ve grown quite a bit in the last couple of years. When you look at their conference record, it’s outstanding. When you look at their road record, it’s outstanding. You can put their backcourt up there with anybody’s. Wall and Beal are terrific. Wall has really grown into an All-Star. Beal puts enormous pressure on you at all times. Ariza, if you don’t pay attention to him he can really hurt you. He’s just a really good player. There’s not one aspect to his game that he doesn’t do well. And then you look at their guys up front and Gortat has gotten significantly better. When you look at where he was and his time in Orlando, I thought he was terrific there. He went out West in Phoenix and he just continues to get better and better each year. And then [Trevor] Booker is a guy who is very efficient. He shoots a high percentage. If he gets to his spots and shots, you’re in trouble,” he went on to say. “Their bench is terrific. You look at a guy like Nene. He’s an All-Star talent. He has had some injuries slow him down some. But when he gets the ball, he can shoot it, pass it, post it. He’s hard to deal with. You can’t let him get to his spot. And then you look at a guy like Webster. He’s a starter coming off the bench. Andre Miller has been a great player in the league for a long time. You look at a guy like Al Harrington, he has gotten healthy and gives them a different look. Gooden has come in and done a good job. That was a good pickup for them. They’ve got a lot of guys who are playing well for them."
Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson doesn’t believe there will be a carry-over effect from the team’s blowout win in Washington earlier this month, the last regular-season meeting against the Wizards.
“That night we were just in a good rhythm. They still had a lot of guys out, like Nene. But we just tried to focus on playing hard-nosed defense, playing the we’re capable of because we wanted to get ourselves motivated and ready for the playoffs, and now that we’re seeing this team again, it’s going to be a lot different. Because every team tends to remember the last game they played and they always tend to adjust,” he said. “That’s one thing about the playoffs. Every team adjusts almost every other game. So it’s up to us to really focus on what Thibs wants us to do. Focus on the play calls is really important. That’s why I’m happy that he’s drilling us every day in practice and he’s drilling guys really hard. And I’m happy with the first day, our response of everybody really knowing what they should do and it was great.
“We went over film, watched a lot of plays. I feel like I’m back in grade school, getting asked so many questions from Thibs. He’s drilling you. You’ve got to know everything. It’s like a pop quiz every five minutes, but it’s a part of the game,” Gibson added. “[The Wizards are] physical, they know how to score down low, they like to run and they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now. That’s the main thing. We’ll try to slow them down.”
One thing going for the Bulls that they can’t dispute is the fact that they have home-court advantage in the series, although Thibodeau still attempted to downplay the edge.
“It’s something you work for throughout the course of the season. You try to put as many things in your favor as you can. You have to play well for it to be a factor. You have to give your fans something to cheer about. To think you’re going to win because you’re at home is misguided. One of Washington’s strengths is they’ve shown they’re a very good road team. We have to be ready right from the start of the game. We have to play with great intensity. Just be ready for Game 1. Don’t change the approach. Know your opponent well. Understand what goes into winning and be ready.”
Gibson echoed his coach’s sentiments: “It’s important, but at the same time, it’s a lot of pressure. Guys have to go out there and take care of business. It’s always good to have your home crowd behind you early, but at the same time, they can only do but so much. It’s up to us to have the energy, have the right mindset, know the play calls and just play aggressive.”
Still, there is a theory that the Bulls are a team even strong rivals want to avoid in the playoffs, as evidenced by Brooklyn resting players in its final two games and Miami seemingly settling for the Eastern Conference’s second seed, delaying a potential meeting with the Bulls until the conference finals.
“It’s only chatter. You’ve got to just focus on the thing that’s in front of you. You can’t get caught up in the praise that everybody gives. You’ve got to remember the negatives. You’ve got to remember how people really didn’t expect you to be in this position. You’ve got to remember all the doubters, use that as fuel and keep going. We’re a humble, yet still eager to win team. We’ve still got a long ways to go. We’ve been far before. We want to go back there,” Gibson said. “It’s one game at a time, one play at a time. We feel that we have an opportunity to do something special. We believe in the locker room, we believe in going far, but it’ll all come down to one play at a time, really. In the playoffs, everything gets really shrunk down to how hard guys play, knowing the play calls and aggression. It’s a lot of heart. That’s the main thing. Without those things, you’re really going to have a rough night.”