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Wizards' front line came up big in Game 3

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - Nobody has referred to Etan Thomas, Michael Ruffin and Brendan Haywood as "Big Three II," and nobody in this suddenly happy camp of Washington Wizards expect the Chicago Bulls to approach Game 4 of their opening-round playoff series any differently from the way they did the first three.

That Thomas, Ruffin and Haywood combined for 37 points, 21 rebounds and hit 12 of 14 shots from the field in Washington's 117-99 victory in Game 3 Saturday night at a sold-out MCI Center was certainly beneficial to the Wizards, especially to the team's more prominent "Big Three" of Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison.

But if the Bulls don't want to return to Chicago tied at 2 for Wednesday night's game at the United Center, they will have to figure out a way to stop the Wizards en masse when the series resumes tonight at 7:30.

"I think Chicago's game plan is going to be the same," Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said after running his team through a rigorous practice yesterday. "I don't think they'll pay extra attention to Etan because there are not a whole lot of plays run for Etan."

Said Jamison: "I think a lot of teams want our bigs to beat 'em, and we don't have a problem with that at all. They're really going to continue to make it difficult for Larry, Gilbert and myself, and when things like that happen, Brendan, Etan and Michael really have to take advantage of it."

Thomas, who missed the first 32 games of the regular season with an abdominal strain after signing a six-year, $36 million contract last summer, scored 16 of his 20 points in the first half, to go along with nine rebounds, in 23 minutes off the bench.

Ruffin, who sat out Game 1 and played just three minutes in the second game after missing the last week of the regular season with a foot injury, finished with nine points and three rebounds in 21 minutes. Haywood, the team's starting center, had eight points, nine rebounds and three steals in 21 minutes.

The performance by Haywood and the two journeyman forwards helped counter a poor shooting night from Arenas, Hughes and Jamison, who were a combined 23 of 57 overall and four of 16 on three-pointers. It came after Thomas had nine points and six rebounds in the first two games.

"I'm just trying to play my role," said Ruffin, a fifth-year pro who began his career in Chicago and signed with the Wizards as a free agent last summer. "Not every night I'm going to get an opportunity to play, but when I do get a chance to play, I do what I can to stay ready."

Ruffin did what Kwame Brown couldn't do, keeping rookie forward Andres Nocioni and veteran forward Antonio Davis from taking over on the boards. After Washington allowed the Bulls to cut a 12-point lead to two by halftime by giving up too many second-chance baskets and easy layups, the Wizards shut down Chicago inside.

Thomas, in particular, gave the Bulls problems with his ability to retrieve missed shots and turn them into dunks.

"That's Etan's game, he's a strong, aggressive player, real emotional when he gets out there," said Ruffin, a 6-8, 248-pound forward. "Yesterday, he had an opportunity to really show that, and he stepped up big for us."

Thomas, a fourth-year pro who came here from Dallas at the end of an injury-filled rookie year, even got a technical foul. It came after he had picked up his third and fourth personals in quick succession.

While Chicago used the technical to cut its deficit to 74-71, Thomas and Ruffin led the Wizards on a 13-2 run that helped break open the game.

The run was capped when Thomas caught an air ball by Hughes and dunked it in, his eighth basket in nine attempts for the game.

Thomas made an interesting analysis yesterday when asked about the fact that he seemed so confident Saturday night.

"You get into a rhythm, and it seems like everything falls," said Thomas, who at 6-10 and 260 pounds has never been known for his finesse. "It's kind of the way it is for a shooter shooting from the outside, but it just happens down low."

A veteran Chicago writer recently started referring to Thomas, Ruffin and Haywood as "The Three Bigs," using the vernacular for centers and forwards. Not that Thomas is looking for a nickname for this group of less-publicized Wizards.

"I'm sure Gilbert will think of something," Thomas said.

NOTES: Brown, who played only four minutes Saturday, was held out of practice yesterday because of a stomach virus. ... A limited number of tickets are still available for tonight's game.

Wizards tonight

Opponent: Chicago Bulls in Game 4 of best-of-seven NBA first-round playoff series

Series: Bulls lead 2-1

Site, time: MCI Center, Washington, 7:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WTEM (980 AM)

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