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 what they couldn't do with Michael Jordan - make the playoffs.
By virtue of their 93-82 victory over the Chicago Bulls last night at MCI Center and Indiana's 90-86 win over the New Jersey Nets, 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.
Larry Hughes led Washington (43-35) with 23 points, while Gilbert Arenas finished with 21 and Antawn Jamison added 19 points and 14 rebounds. Kirk Hinrich scored 21 for Chicago (44-34). The Wizards scored the game's first 10 points and never looked back.
The victory also moved the Wizards closer to the Bulls in terms of gaining home-court advantage for a possible opening-round matchup. Washington gained an important tiebreaker by beating Chicago for the second time in three meetings.
After leading by as many as 22 points in the first quarter and by 13 at halftime, the Wizards never led by less than 10 points in the second half. Leading 54-44 early in the second half, the Wizards built their lead back to as many as 23 by the end of the third quarter.
The Wizards did something they hadn't done in awhile: they got off to a big lead, and rather quickly at that. Scoring the game's first 10 points in a little more than two minutes, Washington kept going while Chicago couldn't get going . With 3:43 remaining in the opening quarter, a three-point shot by Arenas had doubled the lead to 20, 26-6.
While the Wizards didn't resemble the team that recently saw their playoff situation suffer with a five-game losing streak - or even the team that broke the losing streak Monday night against the Milwaukee Bucks - the Bulls looked nothing like the team that had won 12 of its past 14 games.
Not only was Chicago's league-leading field-goal percentage defense taking a hit as the Wizards made eight of their first 12 from the field, but the Bulls came out cold and careless and seemed to get worse as the quarter progressed.
The Bulls missed 13 of their first 16 shots and 19 of 23 for the quarter, and committed seven turnovers. Already depleted in the frontcourt by the one-game suspension to forward Andres Nocioni for an elbow to the head of Detroit's Tayshaun Prince, Chicago also lost Tyson Chandler early in the game.
Shortly after the three by Arenas, a missed jumper by reserve guard Jannero Pargo led to a rebound skirmish between Chandler and Brendan Haywood, who had returned from the injured list last night after missing 10 games since breaking his left thumb March 27.
Chandler appeared to pull Haywood down, and his actions after the foul led to a dismissal from referee Bob Delaney. After missing the three free throws they received on the play, the Wizards built their lead to as many as 22 points, 28-6, on a layup by Etan Thomas with 2:32 left in the quarter.
But Washington couldn't keep up the pace. The Bulls cut their deficit to 28-16 by the end of the quarter and to 36-27 on a jumper by former Duke star Chris Duhon with 3:48 left in the first half, prompting Wizards coach Eddie Jordan to call timeout. Two subsequent free throws by Ben Gordon cut it back to seven, 36-29, with 2:56 to go.
Just when it seemed as if the Wizards would squander their strong opening, Hughes came to the rescue.
A left-handed layup off a neat spin move gave Washington a 45-34 lead. After a bad third foul by Arenas on Duhon with 1.7 seconds left in the half, and a free throw by Duhon, Hughes buried a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to push the lead back to 48-35 at intermission.
The Bulls were a dismal 12-for-46 shooting in the first half, including 1-for-15 from frontcourt starters Antonio Davis, Othella Harrington and Adrian Griffin.
The Wizards were 20-for-43, with Hughes (14 points) shooting 5-for-8 and Arenas (13) going 5-for-10. Washington also out-rebounded Chicago 33-21.