- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

When it was complete, nobody wanted to talk about this being the first playoff victory for Washington’s basketball franchise since 1988.

All the Washington Wizards players and coaches wanted to focus on was tomorrow night’s Game 4 at MCI after a cathartic 117-99 win over a Chicago team that had bullied them offensively and stymied them defensively in winning the first two games of their best-of-7 Eastern Conference first-round series.

“The first two games, we were laid back and they just basically slapped us in the face,” said point guard Gilbert Arenas, who helped the Wizards to their ninth straight MCI Center victory over the Bulls with 32 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.

“And tonight we had other guys like Etan Thomas and Michael Ruffin step up their games,” Arenas continued. “We’re back in this series, and now the focus is to get it to 2-2 and start all over again.”

While contributions like this have come to be expected from Arenas, what the Wizards haven’t been able to count on in this series is hard-core play from their big men. But last night they got huge games from backup center Thomas and high-energy reserve forward Ruffin.

Thomas finished 8-for-9 from the floor, scored 20 points and pulled down nine rebounds. Ruffin, who had played just three minutes in the first two games, had nine points and three rebounds and helped eliminate the physical superiority the Bulls had shown in the first two games.

“Their contributions normally don’t show up on the stats sheets, especially Michael Ruffin’s,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “Etan Thomas was big for us in the paint, and that made a huge difference with his activity and scoring.”

Coming into last night’s game the Wizards had been relying entirely too much on their Big Three — Arenas, Antawn Jamison (21 points yesterday) and Larry Hughes (21) — and not enough on others.

But understudies Ruffin, Thomas and center Brendan Haywood (eight points, nine rebounds) were clearly the reasons why the Wizards’ play in Game 3 was completely transformed. The trio combined to shoot 12-for-15 from the floor, scored 37 points and grabbed 21 rebounds.

“It’s real good when those guys get going because then you don’t feel like you have four sets of eyes on you all the time,” said Hughes, who also had seven rebounds.

Still, it was a close game until late in the third quarter. Leading 74-71, Washington closed the period on a 16-6 run. After that the Bulls, whose six double-figures scorers were led by Tyson Chandler with 15, got no closer than 10 points.

Admittedly embarrassed by the Bulls at raucous United Center last week, the Wizards, playing in front of a highly charged sellout crowd of 20,173, returned the favor and led by 20 points following Arenas’ fadeaway basket with 3:37 to play.

“The Wizards really came to play basketball today and really didn’t allow us to do some of the things we were doing in the first two games,” said Bulls forward Antonio Davis, who was ejected late in the fourth quarter for disputing a foul call against him. “When you look at them athletically, they have a ton of talent. I think it was more of what the Wizards did today and less of what we did.”

Probably. The Wizards out-rebounded the Bulls 49-44 and pulled down 21 offensive rebounds, matching their total for the first two games. And their zone defense, maligned for much of the season, limited the Bulls to just 39.3 percent shooting.

But no one is exulting, not with the Bulls still leading the series.

“We haven’t done anything unexpected,” Jamison said. “We were supposed to come in and play the way we played. We know their mind frame is to come in and try to steal one. They didn’t do it tonight, but they are obviously going to try to do it on Monday.”

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