- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2005

Skeptics laughed behind his back when young, bubbly Gilbert Arenas signed with the sad-sack Washington Wizards before last season and predicted they were going to the playoffs.

But after the franchise clinched its first playoff berth since 1997 with an end-to-end 93-82 victory over the Chicago Bulls last night at MCI Center, only Arenas is laughing now.

“I was a year off,” Arenas said in the Wizards jubilant locker room. “But this is what can happen when you get a couple of pieces and you turn an organization around. Now you have to wonder what would have happened if we had been healthy like every other team? Who knows? But we’re happy where we are. We’re going to do some damage. It’s going to be tough to beat us in seven games.”

MCI, which hasn’t seen a playoff game since it opened for the 1997-98 season, resembled a New Year’s Eve ballroom, with blue and white confetti raining down on exuberant fans.

However, the party didn’t really begin until the scoreboard showed that the Indiana Pacers had officially eliminated the New Jersey Nets from the postseason with a 90-86 victory. That guaranteed a trip to the playoffs for the Wizards, who would be seeded sixth and face the Boston Celtics if they started today.

“It’s a wonderful day for the city,” said coach Eddie Jordan, who got the Wizards to the playoff despite losing 306 player games to injuries. “I’m a fan as much as I am a coach. I’m happy for the Washington, D.C., community. We have some solid character guys in our locker room, guys who are committed to being a good team and dong what it takes to win games and get to this level. We are still a young, growing team, and that is the beauty of it.”

As has been the case so often his season, the Wizards won because their guards were better. Larry Hughes led the Wizards (43-35) with 23 points, six rebounds and five assists. Arenas finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

Washington also got 19 points and 14 rebounds from Antawn Jamison and a solid effort from Brendan Haywood, who played in his first game since breaking his right thumb March 27.

Haywood finished with seven points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots. The Wizards, who never trailed and led by as many as 23 points, dominated all night. They established a significant (64-48) rebounding advantage and held the Bulls, to just 33.7 percent shooting.

Although the Bulls (43-35) made surges throughout, they never recovered from the 28-6 lead the Wizards took in the first quarter.

“Right out the gate, we really looked slow,” Chicago coach Scott Skiles said. “We got it to nine points, but we never really had enough.”

The Bulls, winners of 12 of their previous 14 games, were without starting center Eddy Curry, who has an irregular heartbeat. Guards Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon led Chicago with 21 points apiece.

The Bulls’ early frustration showed late in the quarter when Tyson Chandler was ejected because he pulled Haywood down by the neck and then stepped on his chest as the Wizards center Haywood sprawled across the floor.

“It was a cheap shot,” Haywood said. “For some reason, this guy has something personal against me. When I went down, he kind of acted like he was going to kick me in the chest and didn’t do it. It was a sucker move. The bottom line is, when we see each other out in public, he never has anything to say. Who’s tough with a bunch of referees around - nobody? He hurt his team tonight.”

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