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Wizards get smart and get tough

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - How could you tell that the NBA playoffs had come to the nation's capital? Not so much by the din raised by 20,173 towel-waving die-hards wedged into MCI Center yesterday, who had waited eight years for the privilege and 17 years in the hopes of seeing an actual win by any version of the franchise.

No, you could tell most by the sight of the Chicago Bulls' Andres Nocioni curled up near midcourt clutching his unmentionables in pain, rendered immobile by Larry Hughes' inadvertent knee.

Two and a half minutes into the second half of Game 3 of their first-round series, with the score tied at 62, Nocioni, the D.C. crowd's designated villain, had leaped to deliver a pass. Hughes had risen with him, arms and legs flailing, to make it tougher for Nocioni than the Wizards had made it for the Bulls in falling behind in the series 0-2.

That was the goal for this game. Stop making everything so easy for them, the Wizards decided: driving, rebounding, shooting, scoring. As Gilbert Arenas later put it, "The first two games, we were all laid back, and they essentially slapped us in our faces."

Yesterday, in response, the Wizards kneed them in their groins.

Among other indignities, such at swarming the Bulls every time they came close to the basket, fighting them for every rebound, bolting into the passing lanes, diving to the floor or into the courtside seats for loose balls, leaping in front of them to draw charges, chasing shooters and thrusting hands, forearms and elbows into their faces and wherever else they might feel it.

It wasn't Wizards basketball as we've known it this season, with Hughes, Arenas and Antawn Jamison outgunning the opposition.

It was Etan Thomas and Michael Ruffin, a little Brendan Haywood and an occasional Jared Jeffries doing things that don't show up in box scores (Ruffin tapping missed shots to teammates, Jeffries taking the charge that fouled out Tyson Chandler) and things that do show up (Thomas' 20 points, all of them the hard way).

What it was, was playoff basketball.

The Wizards started playing it two games late, but they proved that it was worth trying at least once.

"We definitely felt we had a lot of things to prove," said Thomas, who led the effort to change the tenor of the series. "[Between games 2 and 3] we kept our confidence up, we didn't get down on ourselves as a team and we definitely made adjustments and played better defense."

None of the Wizards wanted to admit to all the factors that left them with something to prove. In their defense, an 0-2 deficit is more than enough motivation, and they seemed more aware of the realities of the playoffs than did many of the observers who said, privately and publicly, that a four-game sweep was in the air.

"Some people take it for granted how important home court is," said Jamison, speaking both of how 2-0 leads by the team with home court are almost meaningless and of how teams as young as the Wizards and Bulls live off home courts more than do their experienced brethren.

That said, Jamison continued, "We knew exactly why we didn't win those first two games, and we were definitely disappointed and frustrated in how we lost those games."

The Wizards returned the favor and made the Bulls wilt in the heat the way they and the fans at United Center had made the Wizards wilt.

That was evident by 39 percent Bulls shooting (including 7- for-26 on threes), two key players fouling out and one - cagey, playoff-tested veteran Antonio Davis - blowing a gasket on his sixth foul and getting kicked out, as well.

This time, the crowd wore different colors, hollered and screamed, created a white-cloth blizzard, booed and taunted Nocioni and others mercilessly, and roared for every hard pick, big rejection and floor burn.

In that atmosphere, the shots that fell so easily in Chicago didn't fall yesterday - not for Ben "Not Jordan" Gordon, not for Kirk Hinrich, not for the loathed Nocioni, not for Game 2 heroes Adrian Griffin and Jannero Pargo.

Instead, the Bulls found themselves face down or on their backsides, and out of anything close to a flow.

It seriously annoyed Scott Skiles, the Bulls' pepper pot of a coach (to borrow an old Howard Cosell phrase). Teeth clenched, a scowl furrowing his brow, Skiles corrected an observation that the Wizards had played more physically: "I would simply say we were less physical."

For the record, Nocioni did get up and later returned to play. But the Bulls never tied or led the game again.

After making their fans wait all those years for playoff basketball, the Wizards gave it to them. In every way.

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