From the time they opened the season with the franchise's best start in 20 years, the Washington Wizards have been hearing that they are a potential playoff team.
From the moment recently when they clinched their first postseason berth in eight years, the Wizards have heard how different the playoffs are from the regular season.
Today, the Wizards will find out what kind of playoff team they can be, and what the atmosphere will be like, when they meet the Chicago Bulls on the road at the United Center in Game 1 of their best-of-seven opening-round series. Wizards coach Eddie Jordan is curious how his team will respond.
"We're a young team, we're a team that hasn't had the experience, we have to live through it, we have to go through it, and I hope that can go up to another level, because we need to, because we're not at the level that we need to be," Jordan said after practice Thursday at MCI Center.
Riding a four-game winning streak that included a decisive, playoff-clinching victory over the Bulls in Washington on April 13, the Wizards closed the regular season with road losses at New Jersey and New York.
Though Washington's position as the No. 5 seed in the East had been set, Jordan was still disappointed with his team's effort, particularly against the Nets. His players know that a different mind-set -- particularly on defense -- is needed from the one that helped the Wizards to a 45-37 record.
"We've got to go out there like assassins, like warriors, don't feel sorry for no one, that's what the best teams do," said point guard Gilbert Arenas, who led the Wizards in scoring with a career-high 25.5 points a game. "We know it's going to be physical, we know they've got a couple of dirty players. There's nothing you can do but play your game and just let the referees call the game. This is where your patience gets tested."
What will help a team that has only one player with vast postseason experience -- reserve guard Anthony Peeler, recently activated after spending 22 games on the injured list -- is that this will be Chicago's first playoff appearance since Michael Jordan led the Bulls to the last of their six NBA championships in 1998.
"We're both the underdogs," Arenas said. "No one expected both of us to be here. We're both playing. We did a great job this year, both teams. It's going to be great, exciting, inexperienced basketball."
Asked if Chicago's postseason inexperience should even things out for the Wizards, Eddie Jordan said: "No, it doesn't. They have the fourth seed, we have the fifth seed. They have a better record, they've shown to play better defense. Nothing evens itself out, only that they have two games at home and we have two games at home. They're a better team than we are right now."
The Bulls, who overcame an 0-9 start to finish 47-35, head into the postseason without fourth-year center Eddy Curry and rookie forward Luol Deng. Curry was sidelined during the last three weeks of the regular season by an irregular heartbeat and Deng underwent season-ending wrist surgery.
"Better that they don't have him [Curry] than have him, for us, but other guys step up," said Jordan, whose team went 2-1 against the Bulls this season. "Ben Gordon steps up, and [Andres] Nocioni steps up and Othella Harrington and [Tyson] Chandler step up. They've done a good job without Curry."
It is certainly a matchup of contrasts.
The Wizards, despite injuries to Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison, were one of the league's top scoring teams all season, finishing sixth overall (100.5 points a game). But Washington was one of the league's worst defensive teams, finishing 23rd in points allowed (108.8) and tied for 23rd in shooting percentage defense (.459).
Conversely, the Bulls were seventh in points allowed (93.4) and first in shooting percentage defense (.422) but finished 21st in scoring (94.5).
"It's hard to change your identity; you just can't change a zebra's stripes," Jordan said. "You can kind of hide some things that are your weakness. There's a game plan that you now have that you can make adjustments to, and try to take away their strengths. You can focus in and do one or two things differently, and that's what we're going to have to do."
Despite their inexperience as playoff teams, this could be a budding rivalry between two of the league's best young teams. There was a preseason skirmish between Wizards center Brendan Haywood and Bulls forward Antonio Davis, and a more recent confrontation between Haywood and Chandler that led to the Chicago center's ejection.
"Rivalries hurt your team because somebody is always going to do something stupid," Arenas said. "I think that's what Tyson Chandler did. We've got to play it as a basketball game and not worry about what happened in preseason and what happened when Tyson got here. That's not what basketball is about."
Arenas, 23, was 3 months old the last time the franchise known as the Bullets won a playoff series.
"We don't think about the pressure, there's no pressure to us," Arenas said. "We have a goal in mind and we can't worry about what the city is thinking."
And what is that goal? "We know what it is, but we just can't tell you," Arenas said.
Spoken like a true playoff veteran.
Opponent: Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of best-of-seven NBA first-round playoff series
Site, time: United Center, Chicago, 5:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WWRC (1260 AM)