- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

CHICAGO — Gilbert Arenas’ shot will be talked about for a long time. The shot that beat the Chicago Bulls last night to give the Washington Wizards a 3-2 lead and a chance to win their first playoff series since 1982 tomorrow at MCI Center.

It was a huge shot that would not have been necessary had the Wizards not missed a bunch of free throws down the stretch and the Bulls not found the resolve to erase a 10-point deficit in the final 43 seconds. Washington also led by 22 early in the third quarter en route to its 112-110 victory.

However, more than the usual suspects enabled the Wizards to build their big lead. The “Big Three” certainly lived up to its name. Arenas scored 16 points and dished out eight assists. Larry Hughes had 33 points, a career high in the playoffs. And forward Antawn Jamison had 19 points and 10 rebounds.

But it’s hardly been a three-man act in the playoffs. Etan Thomas, Juan Dixon, Jared Jeffries and Michael Ruffin also have shared the spotlight. Center Brendan Haywood stepped forward last night to score 17 points on eight of 10 shooting, grab seven rebounds and block five shots while altering others.

“Coach [Eddie] Jordan always tells me to protect the basket,” Haywood said. “I wanted to come in and put my stamp on the game and be aggressive. … I wanted to be aggressive inside and really attack the boards.”

Haywood has had issues with the Bulls. During a preseason game, Antonio Davis slammed him to the floor, and in the last regular-season meeting, he was knocked down by Tyson Chandler, who then feigned a move to step on his chest.

This time, Haywood inflicted the pain, fair and square.

“I was confident in my jump hook and Larry and Gilbert were looking to find me,” he said. “Our guards got us the ball in scoring position. They passed up a good shot for a great shot. It helped everyone out, especially the bigs.”

The “bigs” include 6-10 Thomas. The Wizards other center had his moment in Game 3 with 20 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes. Now he has to be considered in any opponent’s game plan. Starting forward Jared Jeffries (12 points, eight rebounds) and blue-collar reserve forward Michael Ruffin, who had six points (3-for-3 shooting) and four rebounds in 11 minutes, also contributed.

“All my opportunities were created by Gil and Larry and Antawn,” Ruffin said.

Haywood, Jeffries and Ruffin combined to make 17 of 22 shots against a Bulls defense that led the league in field goal percentage defense. Chicago clearly misses injured center Eddy Curry and forward Luol Deng on defense. But the Bulls had been shutting people down without them, too.

“When we get production from someone other than the ‘Big Three,’ it makes it a better game for us,” Haywood said.

“It’s been that way all year,” Ruffin said. “The role players have stepped up and made things happen.”

But maybe not like this.

Asked why the offense ran so smoothly, at least for three quarters, Ruffin said, “We were playing focused and really working. We set screens and made the extra pass.”

Still, it almost all went to waste after Jannero Pargo hit a 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds left to tie the game at 110, after the Wizards led 108-98 with 42.9 seconds to go.

“I couldn’t believe they came all the way back,” Ruffin said.

But there was just enough time left for Arenas to shake off Kirk Hinrich and launch a 14-footer as time expired.

No big deal, said Arenas, an All-Star and the Wizards’ leading scorer. He has done this before, alone, in his countless late-night shooting sessions.

“I practice big shots every night,” he said. “So when it comes up, you don’t think about it.”

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