CHICAGO – Bronze doesn’t glisten, but that didn’t prevent the shine of Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah’s new Defensive Player of the Year trophy from catching the eye of the Wizards’ Marcin Gortat.
“Got to go three times harder,” Gortat said Tuesday afternoon, smiling. “I’ve got extra motivation, actually.”
Gortat has been eager to prove himself in the first-round playoff series against Noah, who was given the award on Monday in recognition of his team-high 11.3 rebounds and 1.51 blocks per game during the regular season.
So, too, have his Wizards teammates, who have taken pride in their defense all season but have been overshadowed in their first two playoffs games by perhaps the best defensive team in the league.
Washington knew the meeting of the two teams would be a physical affair and it has proven to be so. The Bulls’ frontcourt of Noah, Carlos Boozer and reserve Taj Gibson matches up well against Gortat, Nenê and backup Trevor Booker, both in skill and size.
The teams combined for 84 rebounds and 78 points in the paint in Game 1, which the Wizards won, 102-93. They also committed 51 personal fouls, with the 25 committed by Chicago tied for its third-highest number of penalties in a game all season.
Among the wisdom imparted by Washington’s playoff veterans to its youngsters before the series began was that officials may be less apt to call fouls and more inclined to letting the teams play.
Booker found that out with 1:53 remaining in the first quarter in Game 1 on Sunday when he got tangled up with Boozer while trying to pursue an offensive rebound. Bulls guard D.J. Augustin came down with the ball, and Booker trotted down the court shaking his right hand, apparently in pain.
“You’re in the playoffs,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters following his team’s practice on Monday. “Games will be called differently. You have to adjust accordingly. It shouldn’t take away from our technique. That’s something we work on every day – concentrate on your body position, do your job, get it done.
“Offensively, if you feel like you’re driving the ball and not getting calls, you have to make sure you drive it harder. Some of them are 50/50 calls. I thought the game was officiated the same way for both teams. It was called tightly, and you have to adjust accordingly.”
Wizards guard John Wall found that it didn’t take long on Sunday to learn what the officials were going to call and what they weren’t. That didn’t mean there weren’t any inconsistencies; Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich was assessed a technical foul with 5:12 remaining in the third quarter because he continued to argue with officials about a call he believed they should have made before his team took a timeout.
“The main thing is that you know it’s a playoff game, and they’re not going to call everything, so you’ve got to play through certain things,” Wall said. “But the main thing is just to go out there, keep our same game plan, make a couple adjustments, and if we keep playing the right defense and keep making the right plays, I feel like we’re fine.”
Of all players, the physicality seemed to bother Noah the most in Game 1. The inside-out approach taken by the Bulls on offense typically leads to Noah collecting the ball in the high post, then looking to distribute it to a teammate or back down his defender and attack the basket.
Noah was primarily Gortat’s responsibility, but the Wizards had Nenê shift away from Boozer and pick up Noah on occasion. They frustrated him by denying him space, shutting down passing lanes and keeping him away from the basket.
“We’ve just got to make sure that we have the pressure on the ball,” Gortat said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re gonna have pressure defensively and make sure that Noah’s gonna have a physical contact, a physical battle on the three-point line or inside. It’s very important for us to make sure that his life isn’t going to be easy for the next 48 minutes.”
Gortat, who averaged 33 minutes per game during the regular season, should be able to handle the bruising and pounding he’ll take. It’s unclear, though, how it will affect Nenê, who is still recovering from a sprained MCL in his left knee and said before practice on Monday and Tuesday that the knee remained sore from Sunday.
But, as Nenê said, being mentally tough and dealing with discomfort is a given in the playoffs. The need to look past the aches and pains that are sure to accumulate as the postseason continues isn’t a topic Wizards coach Randy Wittman has found a need to broach.
“We don’t talk about it,” Wittman said. “It’s mind over matter now.”