CHICAGO | Since the Wizards began their playoff run 10 days ago, coach Randy Wittman has routinely praised his players for their focus, determination and tenacity. Only once had they experienced any sort of lapse, and even then, the result was a narrow, three-point loss to the Chicago Bulls on Friday.
Nothing changed on Tuesday. The Wizards defeated the Bulls 75-69 in Game 5 of the teams’ first-round playoff series at United Center, ending the best-of-seven series and advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time in nine years.
That means Washington, which will face either the Indiana Pacers or the Atlanta Hawks in the second round, will earn a few days of rest before returning to the court early next week.
“I’m proud of those guys because for a lot of them, it’s the first time dealing with all this — not only the playoffs, but then to close out a series, I think they really realized how hard it is,” Wittman said.
John Wall had 23 points and Bradley Beal had 17 points to lead the Wizards, who had never won a Game 5 when holding a 3-1 lead in a postseason series. The Bulls, meanwhile, will pass up a return trip to Washington for a potential Game 6 on Thursday and remain in Chicago to begin their offseason.
Chicago, which lost the first two games of the series at home, was led by guards Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler, each of whom scored 16 points. The Bulls shot just 33.3 percent, including a woeful 26.1 percent in the first quarter, and were undone in the final two minutes in the fourth quarter, when the Wizards grabbed five offensive rebounds.
Washington had made a habit of running out to early leads in the previous four games of the series, including a 17-point advantage in Game 2 and a 14-0 run to start Game 4. That has come, in part, from its suffocating defense, which forced Chicago to make careless turnovers early and allowed Washington to dictate the pace in the open court.
That happened again on Tuesday, with Wizards taking a 23-15 lead after the first quarter and quieting a crowd that seemed disenchanted with the home team’s performance earlier in the series.
Chicago hung in the game early by attacking the basket, scoring eight of its first 10 points from inside the paint, but Washington was able to counter with a series of midrange jumpers including three from Nen, who had 20 points on 10-for-17 shooting in his return to the lineup.
Washington’s lead hit 12 points with 9:34 to play in the second quarter on a three-pointer by Beal from the left corner. After Andre Miller missed a short lay-up, Booker tipped the ball back to the top of the key, where Nen swung it to Beal in the corner for the open shot.
Already primed by a pair of three-pointers by Hinrich and a thunderous dunk by Gibson that awakened the crowd, the Bulls took their first lead since the opening seconds when Gibson made a pair of free throws at 3:55 to put his team on top, 35-34.
With the Bulls again struggling to shoot they missed nine consecutive shots over nearly five minutes late in the quarter Washington, and Beal, took advantage. The second-year guard had eight of his 17 points in the third quarter to send the Wizards into the fourth quarter up, 61-52.
Chicago scored the next five points, but took a huge hit with 7:51 remaining when Taj Gibson, the only player to score in double figures for Chicago during all five games, landed on Wall’s right foot and grabbed his right ankle in pain.