- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2014

The regret of a loss to the Chicago Bulls on Friday weighed heavily on the minds of the Wizards’ players throughout the weekend. It wasn’t a crippling defeat – Washington, after all, still had a one-game advantage in the teams’ best-of-seven first-round playoff series – but it was one that disappointed a rowdy crowd at Verizon Center excited to see the team play in the postseason for the first time in six years.

Attention, then, was placed on trying to avoid a similar letdown on Sunday, which could certainly change the entire complexion of the series. Play with desperation, coach Randy Wittman urged. Challenge your opponent, guard John Wall begged.

“We were pretty disappointed in the way we lost Game 3, so that being said, we had to come out here today and take care of business,” said guard Trevor Ariza. “That’s what we did.”

The Wizards scored the first 14 points of the game, and behind 30 points from Ariza, soundly defeated the Bulls, 98-89, in Game 4 of the series Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center.

They became the first team in the week-old series to win at home. And, with another victory Tuesday in Chicago at United Center, they will advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time in nine years.

“We don’t want to come in here satisfied with three wins,” said forward Drew Gooden. “We want to go in there to go for the jugular. We have a wounded animal right now, and we want to kill it.”

Washington maintained a steady double-digit cushion without its reliable forward, Nenê, who was suspended Saturday afternoon for his altercation with Bulls guard Jimmy Butler in Game 3 on Friday.

Trevor Booker, who started every game in Nenê’s prolonged absence because of injury at the end of the regular season, replaced the forward in the lineup and had eight points and nine rebounds before fouling out after 28 minutes.

But it was Ariza who benefited the most from Nenê’s absence. He made each of his first four shots, three of which were three-pointers, to power the Wizards to a 14-point lead after four minutes. He provided additional punctuation throughout the game, including a three-pointer as the first half expired and an emphatic dunk with 1:04 remaining, to set a postseason career high in scoring in his 45th playoff game.

“Unfortunately, one of our players was suspended and couldn’t play, so we have to pick up the slack. I got a lot of open looks,” Ariza said. “Normally, those touches are for Nenê early in the game, but we needed somebody to step up and be aggressive and tonight, I took that role.”

The Wizards cruised to a 55-40 lead at halftime on Ariza’s three-pointer, and their advantage expanded to 23 with 11:39 remaining when Bradley Beal, who finished with 18 points, sank a three-pointer from 25 feet.

Their advantage would have been larger earlier if it weren’t for Taj Gibson, who scored 32 points off the bench – including 20 in the first half. He shot 13-for-16 from the floor, only missing his first shot with 9:14 remaining, while the Bulls collectively made 35 of 78, or 44.9 percent, of their attempts.

Defense was among the Wizards’ greatest issues in Game 3 on Friday, and it was one of the heaviest points of emphasis during practice on Saturdayand leading into Sunday’s game.

“I kind of challenged them to go and take some pride in stopping the guy that you’re on, and it’s come down to a lot of that,” Wittman said. “They stepped up. Tonight was better. Our pressure was better than it was in Game 3, and we’ve got to continue to have that.”

Washington also minimized its mistakes, turning the ball over only six times. John Wall, who scored 15 points, facilitated the offense with 10 assists. Chicago, meanwhile, had 16 turnovers, leading to 29 points for the Wizards.

Collectively, they shot a series-low 40.7 percent from the floor, including a 4-for-15 effort by Wall and a 6-for-18 performance by Marcin Gortat, who finished with 17 points and had six rebounds.

Butler had 16 points for the Bulls, while Joakim Noah, the primary beneficiary of Nenê’s absence, had 10 points and a team-high 15 rebounds.

The Wizards have not held a 3-1 lead in the playoffs since 1979, when they needed seven games to defeat the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The task now, Wittman said, will be to maintain that focus in what can be a difficult situation in Chicago on Tuesday.

“You have to stay desperate,” Wittman said. “You can’t say, ‘Well, we’ve got this in our back pocket.’ It changes too much. A guy gets thrown out. A guy might come sick. It can change like that, all right? I don’t want them taking anything for granted.”

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