- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2014

It didn’t take long Tuesday night for the Washington Wizards‘ excitement of an overtime victory over the Chicago Bulls to shift to the anticipation of taking their first-round playoff series back home.

“Boy, I hope it’s jumping,” coach Randy Wittman said after the Wizards took a two-game lead with a 101-99 victory. “It’s been a long time. I’m happy for the city. More importantly, I’m happy for our guys to see what it’s like to come in here, in one of the toughest places from a fan base standpoint in the playoffs, and now [have] the experience back home.”

The Verizon Center has not hosted a Wizards playoff game in six years, over which the franchise endured several subpar, 20-win seasons. Friday’s game — Game 3 in the best-of-seven series — won’t be just any home playoff game, especially with the way the Wizards have been playing.

The 2-0 series lead is the franchise’s first since 1975 in a series scheduled to go at least three games. Should the Wizards win Friday, they could knock the Bulls out of the playoffs and advance to the second round with a victory at the Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon.

The Wizards have planned an elaborate production for fans attending Game 3, including the distribution of T-shirts — red for fans in the lower sections, white for those in the middle sections and blue up top. They also have been urging fans to download a smartphone application to take part in a pregame light show, and the Wizards will unveil a 40-by-40-foot banner before the game.

“Claiming the Eastern Conference’s No. 5 seed with a 44-38 record on the last day of the regular season was exciting, a testament to the commitment of our team and a huge ‘thank you’ to our fans who have been so supportive throughout this process, especially this season,” team owner Ted Leonsis wrote this week on his personal blog, Ted’s Take. “I’m looking forward to you being even louder and prouder this weekend.”

According to SeatGeek, an online ticket reseller that follows trends on the secondary market, tickets for Game 3 are three times as expensive as those for regular season Wizards games. The market for tickets has been the most active of any for the 16 playoff teams. The cheapest tickets available on the secondary market shortly after they went on sale were $34. By late Thursday afternoon, the cheapest ticket was $110.

Only a smattering seats were listed available through Ticketmaster, the team’s primary reseller, late Thursday afternoon. Five pairs were available, the cheapest costing $440 in the lower bowl. Select single seats in the upper level could be purchased for $123.50.

The game figures to sell out, though the Wizards sold out only four home games during the regular season.

Chicago’s United Center, at 20,917 the second-largest arena in the league, was filled to capacity every night.

“We’ll probably be a little nervous playing in front of our home crowd,” said Washington guard Bradley Beal. “I mean, our first playoff game here at home — a different type of atmosphere. Everybody cheering with us instead of against us, but it should be fun at the same time. We should embrace it, use it to our advantage and then, hopefully, we can have the same results we had the last two games.”

Players noticed the growing attention to the Wizards on Thursday when over two dozen reporters were in attendance. During the regular season, only a half-dozen or so are at a typical practice. A team spokesman couldn’t disclose the number of media credentials planned for Friday’s game but confirmed it will need to open the hockey press box to accommodate everyone.

Tuesday’s game was the highest-rated cable program of the night despite its 9:40 p.m. start, with a 1.7 rating and approximately 3.8 million people watching nationally on TNT. That number doesn’t account for all viewers because the game was simulcast on Comcast SportsNet in the Washington and Chicago metropolitan areas.

“To me, the most exciting thing would be for people to do what they’re doing right now — to care about this franchise,” said Danny Rouhier, a longtime Wizards fan who co-hosts the sports radio show “Grant & Danny” with Grant Paulsen on WJFK 106.7 The Fan. “It’s not just for it to be the other team that plays in town, but for it to be this basketball hotbed that it is at the amateur ranks.”

Although statistics show that an overwhelming majority of teams holding two-game leads in playoffs go on to win the series, a victory Friday isn’t automatic. The Wizards won just 19 of their 41 home games during the regular season.

“We haven’t done anything yet but prove that we can win two games in a row,” said guard John Wall. “The main thing is coming home and winning the most important game of the season, which, to me, is Game 3 right now.”

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