CHICAGO — As the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Wizards were a mere four games away from claiming one of the top four seeds and, no matter how fleeting, a measure of home-court advantage.
That also meant that for the rest of the postseason, however long their run lasts, they'd be pegged as the underdog.
"I think we're capable, as we've proven all year long, that we can beat anybody," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said before the game. "It's just a matter of – you've got to play the games."
On Sunday, in their first playoff game in six years, the Wizards showed they weren't afraid of the main stage. Nenê had 24 points in his return to the starting lineup, Marcin Gortat had 15 points and 13 rebounds and the Wizards defeated the Bulls 102-93 in Game 1 of the teams' first-round playoff series at United Center.
John Wall added 16 points for Washington, which led for much of the first two quarters but fell down 13 early in the third before chiseling their deficit away.
"The regular season [prepares teams] for the playoff season, so you learn from your experiences, you learn from things that you've gone through, and whatever good you take from that, you just try to transfer it over to the postseason," said Trevor Ariza, who scored 18 points and completed the Wizards' comeback with a pair of free throws with 4:17 remaining. "I felt like all those games that we were down and we clawed back in it, that's what we learned from."
Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin each scored 16 points for the Bulls, who fell apart in the fourth quarter. They built their lead in the second quarter with strong half-court defense, aggressive rebounding and nearly perfect free throw shooting, but they made just two of nine shots after Washington tied the score.
The Bulls couldn't even climb back in the game with Wall and Bradley Beal struggling to find their shot. The two young guards went a combined 7-for-25 from the floor, and neither player scored in the fourth quarter until Wall knocked down a pair of free throws with 25 seconds remaining.
Nenê, Gortat and reserve guard Andre Miller led the way during that period, accounting for all but eight of Washington's 30 fourth-quarter points.
"I tried to do the best of my job in leading the team and just tried to get us a win, but I know I can play better offensively," Wall said. "But to get a win like this and have my teammates step up when I didn't have a great game is big for us."
Washington hadn't won Game 1 of a playoff series since 1986, when it topped the Philadelphia 76ers on the road, 95-94.
Nenê, who had been coming off the bench since returning to the lineup on April 9, ensured that the Wizards would come out swinging. He had eight of his team's first 12 points, including a resounding dunk on Carlos Boozer on Washington's second possession, and shot 9-for-12 over the first three quarters.
"We talk about that before the game, about how you feel about the playoffs," said Nenê, who played 36 minutes. "Everybody start talking about, 'Oh, I feel nervous a little bit,' but if I make the first bucket, the kind of butterfly in the stomachs go away a little bit and the game come back to normal."
The Wizards led 24-22 after the first quarter, but the physical play between the two teams led to an uptick in foul calls during the second quarter. Washington couldn't take advantage of its free throws, making only 12 of 21 in the first half, while the Bulls knocked down 14 of their first 17.
Augustin tied the score at 40 with 4:56 remaining before Chicago broke loose, using a 14-4 run over the next two and a half minutes en route to a 54-48 halftime advantage.
Mike Dunleavy, held scoreless in the first half, had all 11 of his points in the first six minutes of the third quarter, at which point the Wizards held a game-high 64-51 lead. The Wizards regrouped with a timeout, then slowly started to whittle away at the Bulls' lead, pulling within three, 75-72, at the end of the third quarter.
"As I told the guys the last couple of days, we have to be able to survive, or stay in the game, when we go down and have five, six or seven straight possessions of not scoring," Wittman said. "Both teams can go through that. Who's going to stay in the fight when you do that? We did."
Miller, who finished with 10 points, offered a steady hand in place of Wall, who subbed out with 1:47 left in the third quarter and didn't return until 4:33 remained.
Ariza made his pair of free throws 16 seconds later to give the Wizards the 88-87 lead, and the Bulls spiraled out of control. They made just two of their final nine shots, several of which were rushed and off balance.
The Bulls' vaunted frontcourt of Boozer and Joakim Noah, touted as a potential defensive player of the year candidate, was held in check by Nenê, Gortat and Trevor Booker. Boozer finished with 11 points, while Noah added 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Washington won its lone regular-season meeting with the Bulls in Chicago on Jan. 13. A third victory, in Game 2 on Tuesday, would set them up well for when the best-of-series heads back east later in the week.
"Obviously, it give us a lot of confidence," Gortat said. "It give us a lot of belief that we can win another game here, but still, we've been in this situation many times. We can't get excited. We've got to stay focused. We've got to get ready for the next game. We've got to recover as soon as possible and put ourselves in better position even for the second game."
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