- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

CHICAGO – The victory hadn’t yet sunk in on Sunday afternoon when Wizards coach Randy Wittman delivered a swift reality check to his players.

“I told them our hardest game is yet to [be played],” Wittman said shortly afterward. “Closing out a series is hard. It’s hard, and you’ve got to understand that. You’ve got to play harder than you have up to this point, and I think if we can take that attitude, we’re going to have an opportunity.”

The Wizards have said, and then done, all the right things during the first 10 days of their best-of-seven series against the Chicago Bulls. They’ve preached the importance of playing defense, they’ve stressed the need to distribute the ball and they’ve not shied away from getting physical.

What they faced entering Tuesday’s game was a different challenge entirely. With a victory in Game 5 at United Center, the Wizards would end the Bulls‘ postseason run – one that had the makings of a conference title before the season began and surely appeared to be headed for the second round against a seemingly overmatched, and possibly underestimated, Washington team.

Chicago, playing for its season, figured to be the desperate team. The Wizards have taken that prove-it approach since entering the postseason, and they insisted Tuesday morning they were not about to lose that focus.

“I still feel like we’re the underdogs,” guard John Wall said following an hour-long morning shootaround. “We’re just trying to win one more game.”

It has been nine years since the Wizards have advanced out of the first round of the playoffs, with a six-game victory over the Bulls in 2005 their last series triumph. They went on to be swept by the Miami Heat in four games in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and three consecutive seasons of playoff appearances, and first-round exits, followed.

The Bulls are in similarly rare territory. They have trailed 3-1 in a best-of-seven series seven times in franchise history and not only have never won such a series, but have never even pushed it to seven games.

Trevor Ariza, who won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009, has now been on five playoffs teams in his 10 seasons. His team has won the first potential series-clinching game six times in seven series; only in the Western Conference semifinals in 2009, when the Lakers had a 3-2 lead on the Houston Rockets, did they lose in Game 6.

“I think that’s the toughest game to play,” Ariza said. “The toughest game to play in the series is the close-out game, because you have a desperate team fighting for its playoff life and you have a desperate team trying to take it from them. I expect a lot of intensity, a lot of scrappy play, but you’ve just got to continue to fight.”

The Wizards led after the first quarter in each of the first four games of the series, and those starts have been crucial to their success. A 17-point first-quarter lead in Game 2 helped them weather a Chicago run and win, 101-99, in overtime. On Sunday, Washington took a 14-0 lead in the first four minutes and never trailed.

A similar start in a close-out game could be just what the Wizards need, center Marcin Gortat surmised. He entered this postseason having played for three playoff teams, including the Orlando Magic team that lost to Ariza and the Lakers in the NBA Finals in 2009, and knows having multiple chances to eliminate a team can immediately lead to a more relaxed approach.

“It can be really difficult, but at the same time, it might actually be really easy,” Gortat said. “If you’re going to come out strong and hit Chicago early, at some point, they might just break down. Knowing Chicago, they will probably stay for 48 minutes, but there’s a lot of teams that when they get hit in the first two quarters, they’re done.”

If anything, Nenê’s Game 4 suspension gave Wittman the best example of how quickly a playoff series can turn. Though the Wizards were victorious – and played their best game of the series without him – things don’t always go according to plan.

Thus, winning the series as quickly as possible can eliminate those variables as well.

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