WASHINGTON - The wait lasted eight years, seven coaches and countless players, including one who many considered the greatest ever to put on an NBA uniform. The Washington Wizards finally accomplished this season what they couldn't do with Michael Jordan or anyone else in that span.
They made the playoffs.
By virtue of a nationally televised 93-82 victory over the Chicago Bulls last night at MCI Center and Indiana's win over New Jersey, the Wizards will play in the postseason for the first time since the 1996-97 season when the then-Bullets lost to Jordan's Bulls in a three-game opening-round sweep.
Soon after the final buzzer sounded, all attention turned toward the video feed of the game from Indianapolis on the scoreboard above the court. When that game was finished, and Washington's playoff spot was secured, blue-and-white confetti fell from the ceiling and fireworks shot from the floor.
"It's a wonderful day for the franchise, a wonderful day for the city," said second-year coach Eddie Jordan. "We have some solid guys in our locker room, guys who are committed to trying to be a good team and do things that it takes to get to this level. We're still a young, growing team."
Team owner Abe Pollin, who gave an emotional post-game speech to the players in the locker room, said in a statement, "Speaking for our entire organization, we are very excited to make the playoffs."
The victory also clinched a possible tiebreaker for the Wizards, who won two of three games from the Bulls this season. Both Washington (43-35) and Indiana (43-35) chopped a game off the lead Chicago (44-34) had for the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Wizards won last night as they had most of the season, at least when guards Larry Hughes and Gilbert Arenas, as well as forward Antawn Jamison, have been healthy. Hughes finished with 23 points, Arenas scored 21 and Jamison contributed 19 points and 14 rebounds.
Scoring the game's first 10 points and building a 22-point lead later in the first quarter, the Wizards took advantage of the Bulls being undermanned in the frontcourt, coming in without suspended forward Andres Nocioni, center Eddy Curry (irregular heartbeat), and then losing backup center Tyson Chandler, who was ejected in the opening quarter.
The Bulls would cut their deficit to seven in the second quarter, but trailed by 13 after a halfcourt shot by Hughes before the buzzer, and never got within 10 in the second half. Chicago looked shorthanded, not like the team that had won 12 of 13 before losing its last two.
"That may be a case of why we lost," said Chicago coach Scott Skiles. "I am not saying that we should have come in here and somehow dominated the game and won, when we are so shorthanded. Why we started so slowly is something I am going to have to get to the bottom of."
The Bulls missed 13 of their first 16 shots, while the Wizards hit eight of their first 12 and took control early, building their lead to a hard-to-believe 28-6 right before Chandler was tossed for acting as if he was going to step on Brendan Haywood.
The incident, one of several between the teams this season, began when Haywood went up for a rebound and he was pulled down by Chandler. As Haywood lay on the floor, Chandler raised one leg and referee Bob Delaney quickly threw him out.
Though Chandler later claimed he wasn't going to step on Haywood, the Wizards center, who was activated for last night's game after sitting out since breaking his left thumb March 27, said after the game that the former high school prodigy has long had a "vendetta" against him.
"It was just a cheap shot," said Haywood. "He kind of faked like he was going to kick me in the chest. It was a sucker move. ... He hurt his team tonight."
Haywood, who finished with four of his team's 10 blocks, helped Washington give one of its best defensive efforts all season. With the victory, the Wizards were able to make good on a promise Arenas made of the team making the playoffs - last season.
"I was a year off," said Arenas.