- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

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.

That was the last basket Washington would make for nearly two minutes as Chicago, which missed its last six shots of the first quarter and first three of the second, embarked on a 13-4 run.

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.

Wall then scored the Wizards’ final seven points of the first half, and a pair of free throws from Butler with 2.9 seconds to play tied the score at 41 at halftime.

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.

The Bulls crept within three, but with 2:18 to play, Marcin Gortat was able to tip three consecutive misses one by Beal, two by Nen back to the top of the key to reset the offense. The sequence, which ended when Beal’s baseline pass bounced out of bounds, wore 1:20 off the clock.

“We are a good rebounding team too, and it’s just about effort and will,” Gortat said. “My whole offensive game wasn’t here today, so I just tried to focus on rebounding and getting some shots.”

A shot clock violation on the Wizards with 22.4 seconds left handed the ball back to Chicago, but Butler, who took the inbounds pass from Hinrich under the basket, was unable to score. Washington played out the game making just one of its next three free throws, but a pair of offensive rebounds by Nen allowed the Wizards to run out the clock.

Gortat, who had just two points on 1-for-5 shooting, had 13 rebounds. Joakim Noah had 18 rebounds, but just six points.

Washington’s last appearance in the Eastern Conference Semifinals ended in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat in 2005. It had not previously won a series since 1982, when it defeated the New Jersey Nets in the first round and then lost to the Boston Celtics in five games.