The circumstance began long before the game itself, with thousands of free T-shirts waiting for fans as they took their seats at Verizon Center and a pregame video package highlighting the Wizards' renaissance over the years.
It was a coming-out party, a feting of the city's new postseason darlings, and a crowd of 23,356 was at the arena to wait for the first basketball playoff game in six years.
"Everything's what we anticipated and waited for," said guard John Wall. "The only thing different would be to come out with a win."
The Chicago Bulls played the role of spoiler on Friday, emerging with a 100-97 victory over the Wizards in a game that, yet again, wasn't decided until the final minute.
Jimmy Butler made the go-ahead three-pointer with 24.9 seconds remaining for the Bulls, who avoided a catastrophic start to their first-round series by claiming Game 3 and cutting the Wizards' advantage in the best-of-seven series to 2-1.
Mike Dunleavy had 35 points, one shy of his career high, while Carlos Boozer had 14 points and Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin each had 13 points.
Bradley Beal scored 25 points for the Wizards, who, despite the loss, had more rebounds and committed fewer turnovers. Their biggest undoing was on defense, as Chicago shot a series-high 47.9 percent from the floor.
"We had more blown assignments defensively tonight than we did combined, I think we'll see after we break down this game, in the first two games," coach Randy Wittman said. "We didn't have that same focus from a defensive know-how on what we had to do."
As expected, the game was more physical than the first two, punctuated by the ejection of Nenê following an altercation between he and Butler early in the fourth quarter.
After Nenê made a lay-up on a fast break, he exchanged words with Butler, then confronted him, pushed his forehead against Butler's and grabbed him by the back of the neck with both hands, shoving Butler's head downward before the players were separated by officials.
Nenê was assessed a double technical, leading to his ejection, while Butler was charged with a technical foul.
"When you play physical, both ways, things get hot," said Nenê, who finished with 10 points in 29 minutes. "But, you know, it's over, and no way to be but the whole team thinking of Game 4 and step forward and take series."
The Wizards coughed up a seven-point lead early in the second quarter and trailed by six points with 4:02 remaining before taking a 51-48 advantage into halftime. The Bulls missed their last six shots of the first half and their first five shots of the second half, putting them in an 58-49 hole when Marcin Gortat drove in for a lay-up with 8:53 left in the third quarter.
Like in Game 2 on Sunday, the Bulls pulled away in the fourth quarter, only for the Wizards to claw their way back in it. Washington took an 88-86 lead on a 21-footer by Beal with 3:22 left, and the score was tied at 91 with 1:35 to play when Gibson made the second of his pair of free throws.
Butler, who finished with 15 points, took the inbounds pass from Dunleavy with 24.9 seconds remaining and got free on a screen set by Joakim Noah to knock down the go-ahead three-pointer.
"We were going to let Butler shoot them all day if he wanted to shoot them, because we knew that's not really his game," Beal said. "He made a few big ones, but as long as we contest [them] and do our concepts, we can't argue with it."
The teams exchanged free throws for the final 24.9 seconds, and Washington regained possession with 3.1 seconds remaining when Gibson missed the second of two free throws. Trevor Ariza grabbed the rebound and tried to pass the ball to Wall streaking up the left side, but Wall couldn't handle the pass, which went out of bounds to effectively end the game.
"Just a bad mistake – a bad mistake to make," Ariza said.
Wall had 23 points and seven assists for the Wizards, who were held to their worst shooting performance – 43.0 percent – of the series. Ariza had 16 points and 11 rebounds, while Gortat had 13 points and 11 rebounds.
With its victory, Chicago avoids attempting to overcome a seemingly insurmountable feat: No NBA team has lost the first three games of a best-of-seven series and won. Still, only three have lost the first two games at home in such a series and won.
Game 4 will be played on Sunday at Verizon Center, and now Game 5 will be Tuesday night back in Chicago.
"Yeah, we lost, but it's over," Beal said. "We're up 2-1, and we've got to come out with the same sense of urgency, more focused, and ready to go."
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