WASHINGTON - When the Washington Wizards returned last week from Chicago after losing the first two games of their best-of-seven opening- round NBA playoff series to the Bulls, there was talk that a rather large wall had been constructed inside MCI Center.
It was a proverbial barrier, but one against which the Wizards were clearly leaning.
After last night's 106-99 victory last night in Game 4 enabled the Wizards, there were no signs of any impediment, real or imagined. Despite watching a 28-point lead in the third quarter dwindle to a mere six in the closing minutes, the Wizards had tied the series at two games each.
Game 5 will be played tomorrow night at United Center.
The player who did the most in bringing down the Bulls was Juan Dixon. The former Maryland star spent the last two days trying to find his shooting rhythm after missing nine of 10 shots in an 18-point win in Game 3.
Dixon finished with a career-high 35 points, hitting 11 of 15 shots overall and three of his four three-pointers, as well as all 10 of his free throws. They came on a night when the team's leading scorer, Gilbert Arenas, didn't take a shot for the first 18 minutes, but wound up with 23.
"Juan is one of the toughest players I have ever been associated with," said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan. "He is very sensitive to his profession. He cares about his teammates and he cares about winning. He has won at Maryland and he wanted to be a big part of the playoffs and he certainly had an impact tonight."
Said forward Antawn Jamison: "I'm happy for him. Game 3 was Etan [Thomas, who scored 20] and Game 4 was Juan. We need more of that from our bench players. Juan is one of those guys we depend on game in and game out, especially in the playoffs."
Jamison did his part in the victory, finishing with 18 points and getting in the passing lanes early and often on defense and scoring easily inside and out as the Wizards scored on nine of their first 10 possessions to build a 29-15 lead in the first quarter.
Washington's lead grew to 61-37 at halftime and to 65-37 early in the third quarter.
Despite the Bulls cutting their deficit to six on a couple of occasions in the fourth quarter - the second time with 15.8 seconds to play - the Wizards didn't seem as nervous as the sellout crowd of 20,173, many of whom had watched the team waste big leads all season.
Dixon, who had scored Washington's first nine points in the fourth quarter to stretch the lead to 26, secured the win with six straight free throws in the final 30 seconds. It seemed fitting, since the scrawny 6-3 guard had kept hitting wide-open shots.
All the attention the Bulls paid to Washington's Big Three, in particular Arenas and Larry Hughes (10 points on three of 16 shooting), had opened the floor for Dixon, just as it had inside for Thomas on Saturday night. Dixon responded with his most significant performance since leading the Terps to a national championship in 2002.
"It felt great," said Dixon. "I'm happy to do this for my teammates, my coaches and myself. We needed someone to step up, and I'm happy to be able to do it. There is always going to be a lot of focus on the Big Three, so we need someone to step up. I struggled the last three games, but I didn't lose my confidence."
"I felt like we let him get going," said Bulls coach Scott Skiles. "I don't want to take anything away from Juan, but we certainly didn't do anything to stop him."
Conversely, the Wizards went from being defensive about what was being said and written about them after the first two games of the series to being defensive in their execution against the Bulls. Chicago shot 10 of 42 in the first half, 29 of 86 for the game, including 10 of 33 on threes.
The Wizards started the game with Hughes blocking Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich on a 20-footer, and creating turnovers on Chicago's next two possessions. Unlike Game 2, when the Wizards couldn't hold on to an early 17-4 lead, Washington was unrelenting until the middle of the fourth quarter last night.
"We certainly had a great start and fed off our turnovers," said Jordan. "I thought we put some pressure on them, and what they wanted to do. Just our activity, our quickness, our athleticism really helped us to start the game. We rode the wave a little bit."
Washington didn't stop until the lead hit 28.
Reserve guard Jannero Pargo led the Bulls on a 16-2 run to finish with 18 points on six of 17 shooting, the same numbers produced by Hinrich. Reserve guard Ben Gordon continued his slump since scoring 30 in Game 1, finishing one of 13 from the field.
The Bulls, who came into the series without starters Eddy Curry (irregular heartbeat) and rookie Luol Deng (season-ending wrist surgery) were even more short-handed last night when another starter, rookie point guard Chris Duhon, had back spasms and played only nine minutes in the first half, failing to score.
Skiles did not use his team's depleted ranks as an excuse.
"I don't think that had anything to do with it," said Skiles.
Nor did he believe his team's comeback would make much of a difference going into Game 5.
"It was probably better than the alternative of staying down by 23 points," said Skiles. "I thought we tried to play the game down to the end. We even had a couple of chances at the two- or three-minute mark if we could have gotten a stop."