CHICAGO — Except for one loud whoop maybe 15 minutes after the Wizards defeated the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night, one could walk around the cozy visitors’ locker room at United Center, look at the reactions on the faces of the players and honestly question which of the two teams would be moving on to the second round of the playoffs.
Jerseys had been laid out neatly on a folding table in the middle of the room. Shorts had been stacked up alongside them. Around the perimeter, players stood with their heads in their locker stalls, silently getting dressed before grabbing their bags and leaving. Those approached for interviews responded to questions in dull, restrained tones.
“It’s been a while since we even been in the playoffs, and to win a playoff series is huge,” said guard Trevor Ariza. “But that’s not all we’re trying to do. There’s still more to go, still more basketball to be played, and we’re going to sit and watch the other series and see who we play next.”
The Wizards have that luxury now as the result of their 75-69 victory, marking the first time in franchise history — one that stretches back 52 years — they have won a best-of-seven series in just five games.
It is the first time in nine years Washington has advanced past the first round, and only the second time since 1982 it has done so. Up next will be a second-round series beginning Monday against either the Indiana Pacers or the Atlanta Hawks. Those teams will meet in Game 6 on Thursday, with the eighth-seeded Hawks holding a 3-2 advantage in the series.
That the Wizards have come so far in just a short timeframe seems implausible. They wrapped up their regular season just over two weeks ago, with an improbable set of circumstances leading to their capture of the fifth seed on the final day.
The result was a meeting with the Bulls — a team that was projected to be among the best in the Eastern Conference before the season before it lost starting point guard Derrick Rose to a torn medial meniscus in his right knee in November.
Behind its defensive-minded coach, Tom Thibodeau, Chicago was one of the best defensive teams in the league all season, holding opponents to an average of 91.8 points per game and 43 percent shooting.
It was no match for the Wizards, who surpassed 100 points in the first two games while shooting near 48 percent and then scored 97 and 98 points in the next two games.
Washington, furthermore, beat the Bulls at their own game. Aside from Game 3, when they still lost by only three points, the Wizards were the more aggressive team defensively. Center Joakim Noah, who paces much of the Bulls‘ inside-out offense from the high post, was continually flustered by Nenê and Marcin Gortat. Forward Taj Gibson, the only Bulls player to score more than 10 points in each game of the series, was one of five different players who led Chicago in scoring.
“We knew it was going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight, and as I’ve said, we were lucky,” coach Randy Wittman said. “Four of those five games came down to the last possession, and as you well know, that can go either way.”
Much was made before the series of the Wizards’ inexperienced backcourt, with John Wall, in his fourth year, and Bradley Beal, in his second, set to embark upon their first playoff runs. Chicago had made the playoffs each of the previous four seasons, and its core began the series well-acquainted with the intensity and urgency the postseason demands.
Wall, who admitted to playing recklessly and selfish earlier in the season, calmed down his aggression and routinely prodded the Bulls defense. Beal embraced his role as a scorer, averaging 19.8 points per game on 44 percent shooting.
The Wizards’ veterans also provided a lift. Ariza, who won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009, scored 30 points in a Game 4 victory — the most he had scored in 45 career playoff games. Nenê’s midrange jump shot was too difficult for the Bulls to stop, especially as he scored 20 points on Tuesday, and Gortat’s three offensive rebounds in 45 seconds allowed the Wizards to retain possession in the final two minutes of Game 5.
“I think everything we been through was necessary to give us maturity, give us experience,” Nenê said. “We’ve been learning the past two years, and now is our moment, you know? That’s what I think.”