WASHINGTON - Wall? What wall?
The proverbial barrier the Washington Wizards were leaning against last week in their opening-round NBA playoff series against the Chicago Bulls was all but obliterated in the first three quarters of Game 4 last night.
As for the fourth quarter, at least the Wizards make things interesting.
After leading by as many as 28 points in the third quarter, the Wizards watched their concentration lapse and their lead dwindle to six before holding on for a closer-than-it-needed-to-be 106-99 win before a raucous and later nervous sellout crowd of 20,173 at MCI Center.
Following up on the franchise's first playoff win in 17 years Saturday, the Wizards will now head back to Chicago for Game 5 tomorrow night with the series tied at two games each. Washington clearly has the momentum going into United Center, but not nearly as much as it could have had.
Former Maryland star Juan Dixon came off the bench to lead the Wizards with a career- high 35 points, including 16 in the first half when Washington went up 61-37 and 13 in the fourth quarter. Antawn Jamison added 18 and six rebounds.
"We certainly had a great start. We fed off our defense and got some turnovers." said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan. "We got the crowd juiced up and we kind of rode the wave."
Dixon, who shot 1-for-10 in Game 3, played like he did in leading the Terrapins to a national championship in 2002. With leading scorer Gilbert Arenas (23 points) content to play setup man and decoy, the 6-foot-3 guard from Baltimore kept hitting shots. Dixon finished 11 of 15 overall, including three of four on threes.
Regarding Dixon, Jordan said, 'He's got a big heart; he's very confident. He's worked hard on his game the last two days. He's very sensitive to his profession. He cares about his teammates. He cares about winning."
With Washington taking an 80-60 lead into the fourth quarter, Dixon scored his team's first nine points and helped the Wizards increase the lead to 89-62.
The Bulls went on a 16-2 run before reserve forward Michael Ruffin made three of four free throws to make the crowd feel a little more secure. They got a little nervous when Janerro Pargo made a couple of threes to cut the deficit to eight, 94-86, with a little over a minute left.
Arenas made a couple of free throws to extend the lead to 10, but Pargo was fouled by Dixon on a three-point attempt, and made two free throws. Pargo later cut the deficit to 102-96 with 19.1 seconds to go, before Dixon secured the win with a pair of free throws.
Bulls coach Scott Skiles said: 'I thought like we let him [Dixon] get going. I don't want to take anything away from him, but we certainly didn't do anything to stop him."
The Wizards were unrelenting in the first half.
They started the game playing suffocating defense and playing selflessly on offense. Larry Hughes blocked Kirk Hinrich's 20-foot jump shot on Chicago's first possession, and the Wizards made steals on the next two by overplaying the passing lanes. Washington also scored on its first eight possessions and nine of its first 10.
That the Wizards jumped out to a 19-5 lead wasn't as surprising as how they accomplished it. While Jamison got out quickly, as did Hughes, Arenas didn't take a single shot in the first 18M-= minutes. His only point in that stretch came on a technical free throw when the Bulls were called for playing an illegal defense.
Chicago also could have been called for playing an atrocious offense. The Bulls didn't get their first basket until a Hinrich drive with a little under seven minutes left in the first quarter, didn't hit their first outside shot until Adrian Griffin made a 20-footer with 4:26 to go and finished the quarter five of 20 overall, one of six on three-pointers.
Conversely, the Wizards were an efficient 12 of 21, including five of eight by Jamison, to take a commanding 29-15 lead going into the second quarter. Even as Arenas continued to pass up shots he normally takes, Washington kept building its lead behind the shooting of Jamison and Dixon, and by out-rebounding Chicago, 16-8.
Dixon, who had missed his first nine shots and all but one of his 10 attempts overall in Saturday's Game 3 victory, made his first four last night. He also made four straight free throws - after missing both his attempts in Game 3 - and finished the half with a team-high 16 points on five of seven shooting.
Arenas started looking for the basket eventually, hitting his first attempt on a 12-foot pull-up jumper to make it 48-27 with 5:27 left in the first half. After the Bulls cut their deficit to 48-32, Arenas made a three to make the lead 19. He spent most of the first half harassing Hinrich into a three-of-10 performance.
The Wizards scored the last six points of the half to take a 61-37 halftime lead. What was shocking was that Arenas took only four shots, his only miss coming right before the halftime buzzer, and scored just eight points. Jamison finished the half with 14 points and Hughes had 10.
The Wizards paid as much attention to defense as they did to offense, holding the Bulls to 10 of 42 shooting in the first half, including three of 15 on three- pointers. Ben Gordon, who's reportedly has felt ill since scoring 30 points in Game 1, was only one of eight in the first half.