- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Buoying his reputation as one of the league’s great agitators, Joakim Noah turned and stared at the Wizards’ bench after having a passing chat with Paul Pierce. The last time they saw each other Pierce had jabbed his index finger into Noah’s forehead before balling his fists. Noah’s hands were on his hips and half a smirk creased his face as he looked at Washington’s reserves. He paid no mind to the free throws being shot by teammate Aaron Brooks with 32 seconds remaining.

The Chicago Bulls had come into Verizon Center, filled with fans for once, and stymied the Wizards. Washington’s 99-91 loss was its second consecutive. That it came against the Bulls added irritation. For a night, reconfigured Chicago showed its changes are enough to trump the Wizards’ growth.

“We couldn’t break through,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said.

In the middle of July, the Bulls signed Pau Gasol. He had just turned 34 years old and not played a full season in three years. Downward was the assumed arc for him, even in Chicago with Derrick Rose.

Point guard Aaron Brooks was signed a few days later. He was insurance for Rose should injuries trouble the star once again — and they have. With Rose back, he’s the small, darting style of backup point guard the Wizards have trouble containing.

The most dramatic change for Chicago is the emergence of Jimmy Butler as an All-Star. When he arrived out of Marquette in 2011, Rose said Butler carried this air about him. He did not care what others thought, even when the Texas native played country music, leaving teammates confused as to just who this guy was. Butler was immersed in his own world of self-belief.

Those summer-time additions, plus Butler’s budding season, have made the former MVP and the Bulls much more dangerous.

Wall and Rose began a joust in the fourth quarter Tuesday night. Wittman downshifted to a small lineup with Paul Pierce at power forward, and, for a spell, Wall and backup point guard Andre Miller on the floor together. The Wizards were without rhythm on offense and trailed by 11 points to a Bulls team schooled by one of the renowned defensive minds in the NBA, coach Tom Thibodeau. Only 5:53 remained in the game.

Wall used speed, his ultimate neutralizer, to yank the Wizards back into contention. He pushed past Rose to score with his left hand. Too fast even for Rose, particularly a backpedaling Rose, Wall zoomed up the floor for another left-hand lay-in. Wall finished his most creative break by going around his back at full speed to avoid a defender and lay the ball in. His pull-up jumper gave the Wizards a one-point lead. Wall scored 10 points in a 12-0 blitzkrieg. It took less than three minutes.

Rose countered. Following Wall’s flurry, Rose stole a pass from him. He hit a floater. Wall fouled him. Then, a quick stepback jumper swished. Timeout, Wizards. The Bulls lead roared back to seven points.

The most unlikely move of the night followed when the perpetually stoic Rose skipped to the sideline. Gasol and Noah smiled at him.

“It was just what I felt at the time,” Rose said. “I never celebrate. It was just something I just felt. It just came out that way.”

Butler has become lethal enough that his name moved toward the top of opponent’s Dry Erase boards. Defensive coverage has begun to cheat toward him. At times, defenses are overloading his side. That leaves Gasol and Rose personally unprecedented space to operate.

“To see the attention that’s going somewhere else or going so many places now, it’s kind of new for me,” Rose said. “A lot of people want me to score 30 points in the first half. I don’t have to. I can pick and choose when I want to score. Or try to change the game. That’s all I’m trying to do with this team.”

The Wizards were supposed to “ice” any drives by Rose by having Wall funnel him to the baseline and Gasol’s defender step up to close the space. When picking a poison, the Wizards had decided Gasol was the less toxic. Often in between with coverage, they managed neither well. Gasol scored 18 points, Rose 25.

“Driving,” Rose said of his first step in screens from Gasol. “If the big comes up, Pau is wide open and he can knock down that shot seven times out of 10. So, it makes the game easy when you have a big that can pass the way he does, that can shoot the way like he does.”

Complications when playing the Bulls are more vast than they were last season. The Wizards put them out of the playoffs in five games then. Should they play again next spring, Washington will have to manage Rose and Gasol better. Otherwise, Noah will be smiling all the way into the next round. The Wizards will be sent home.

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