- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

First it was Etan Thomas, then it was Juan Dixon.

With all of the Chicago’s focus on Washington’s ‘Big Three,’ elevated play by reserves has helped the Wizards tie their first-round playoff series against the Bulls at two games apiece.

Dixon put on an unconscious shooting performance last night, drilling the Bulls with a career-high 35 points as the Wizards came away with a 106-99 victory before 20,173 at MCI Center. Game 5 will be in Chicago tomorrow.

The performance was all the more unlikely after Dixon’s play in the first three games. He had made just eight of 34 shots in the series, including a miserable 1-for-10 performance in Game 3 on Saturday that left him pleading for coach Eddie Jordan’s faith in the MCI Center basement garage after that game.

‘I told him, ‘Don’t lose confidence in me,’ ‘ Dixon said. “I told him I’m going to get my act together. The only thing is I told him about 10 times. He had his kids in his car and was ready to go to Ruth’s Chris [Steak House]. I just wanted to drill it into his head that I was still confident.”

Dixon finished the game 11-for-15 from the field and 10-for-10 from the line.

“I told Juan that I’m not going to lose faith in him,” said Jordan, who advised the former Maryland star to work on his shooting on the offday. “He’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever been associated with. He’s very sensitive to his profession. He cares about his profession, his teammates and about winning. He just wanted to be a big part of the playoffs.”

Thomas’ star turn came in Game 3. He finished with 20 points and nine rebounds as the Wizards won their first postseason game since 1988. Last night he finished with the same number of rebounds but only five points. Dixon, however, picked up the slack.

“Our bench has realized the ‘Big Three’ can’t do it by themselves,” said Antawn Jamison, the senior member of the “Big Three,” who finished with 18 points. The other two, Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes, scored 23 and 10, respectively.

With Dixon coming up huge, the Wizards, playing in front of a raucous home crowd, set the tone early in a game that was not as close at the score indicated.

Washington used a 61-point first half — the sixth time this season the Wizards have scored at least 60 before halftime — and led by as many as 28 points early in the third quarter. The Wizards jumped to a double-digit lead in the first few minutes and weren’t really threatened after that even though Chicago outscored Washington in the fourth quarter 39-26 to make the score respectible.

“It’s a series now,” said Arenas, who scored 15 of his points in the second half. “In the beginning it wasn’t. We decided that we needed to get down and dirty, and that’s what we’re doing.”

That the Wizards would not be distracted was apparent before the game. After the team was told by the NBA that the shorts of Arenas, Dixon, Jamison and Hughes were too long — Arenas joked that the replacement shorts were “Daisy Dukes” — the Wizards got the laughs out of their system and wasted no time in manhandling the Bulls.

Early in the series, much of the talk revolved around how the Bulls were tougher than the Wizards, how Chicago coach Scott Skiles was the superior coach and how the Bulls should be making reservations for Miami in the second round.

But all of a sudden the Bulls appear vulnerable, Skiles isn’t wearing the mantle of coaching genius and those South Beach reservations are up in the air.

There are plenty of reasons for that, but the biggest difference between the games in Chicago and Washington was that every Chicago shot at MCI Center was taken under duress. In the last two games, the Bulls have shot 39.3 percent and 33.7 percent from the floor, respectively.

The Wizards took a 17-3 lead in the first quarter, pulling the MCI crowd into the game for the duration. Washington led by as much as 65-37 early in the third quarter.

The Bulls made the final score more visually pleasing by fouling incessantly in the fourth quarter, with Jannero Pargo scoring 16 points in the rally.

Kirk Hinrich finished with 18 points for the Bulls, and Tyson Chandler and Adrian Griffin both added 13 points each. Chandler, who played with a dislocated finger, grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds.

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