- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

Etan Thomas was the neighborhood bully.

The sculpted power forward turned in substandard performances in the first two games of the Washington Wizards’ playoff series in Chicago. But yesterday at MCI Center, he was a wrecking crew in dreadlocks. Thomas provided a strong physical presence while perhaps changing the balance of the series in the Wizards’ 117-99 Game3 win.

“We needed it the first two games,” said Washington point guard Gilbert Arenas, who saw little frontcourt or bench production in two losses in Chicago. “He was probably nervous and probably couldn’t find his rhythm. We didn’t get him the ball enough.

“Today he did a great job for us. He played excellent basketball; 8-for-9 [shooting from the floor], 20 points, nine rebounds in 23 minutes. That’s what we need from him every night. He got their bigs in foul trouble, which opened up the game for everybody else.”

Thomas contributed five offensive rebounds and had 16 points on 6-for-6 shooting in the first half. The 6-foot-10 power forward used his 260-pound frame to wear down defenders and help foul out Bulls big men Antonio Davis and Tyson Chandler. He also was a defensive menace, frequently limiting Chicago to one shot and delivering body blows when guards like Kirk Hinrich challenged in the lane.

“We saw him open for shots this time,” Arenas said. “He wasn’t ducking in behind somebody. He made himself visible. From there, he just attacked for rebounds and attacked the rim.”

It was quite a reversal for Thomas, who had a total of nine points and six rebounds in the first two games and was ineffective on defense. Thomas believes he was aggressive in Chicago but feels changes in strategy — including the Wizards’ extensive use of a zone defense to limit second shots and clog the middle — aided his cause.

“We watched a lot of tape and got prepared,” said Thomas, who was three points shy of a career-high of 23 points. “I don’t think it was not being physical.”

Thomas was part of a powerful reserve frontcourt with Michael Ruffin, a defensive specialist who finished with nine points on 2-for-3 shooting and keyed the Wizards’ pull-away stretch in the third quarter. The two provided needed support for the Big Three of Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Larry Hughes.

The Wizards’ reserves had become a soft spot for the team in the first two losses after being outscored 73-47. And although the Bulls managed a 37-31 edge yesterday, it didn’t matter with Thomas and Co. owning the paint.

“He was really tired and fed up,” Jamison said of Thomas. “Coach [Eddie Jordan] really stressed in order for us to be successful, our bench needs to come in and make a difference whether it’s offensively or defensively. Defensively, he made it tough for those guys. He got it going offensively. He stayed positive. He was very aggressive.

“This is the type of team you need to be aggressive [against]. He can’t be passive, and he was able to push those guys around. He got some great opportunities around the basket, and he converted them.”

Thomas came out with 20 seconds left in the third quarter and received a raucous ovation from the home fans. The big man, who missed 32 games at the start of the season after suffering an abdominal strain in training camp, looked like the player the Wizards had hoped for when they signed him to a six-year, $38 million extension last summer.

Thomas basked in the moment of the franchise’s first postseason win since 1988 and felt the Wizards have rediscovered a winning formula.

“It’s a great feeling — one we want to cherish and feel again on Monday [in Game 4],” he said.

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