WASHINGTON - Everything seemed to favor the Washington Wizards last night.
There was the momentum from Wednesday's walk-off win in Chicago on the buzzer-beater by Gilbert Arenas in Game 5. There was the raucous, towel-waving sellout crowd of 20,173 at MCI Center. And there was the fact that the Bulls hadn't won in their past 10 visits here.
It took nearly all 48 minutes for the Wizards to take advantage, but with some forced shots and one major miscue by the Bulls, Washington survived, 94-91, to advance into the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat. Game 1 will be tomorrow in Miami.
A dunk by forward Jared Jeffries with 31.9 seconds remaining followed a botched inbounds pass that went off Chris Duhon's back. Jannero Pargo then shot an airball on a three-point try, and Juan Dixon was fouled, making the second of two free throws with 16.4 seconds left.
With the crowd anticipating the franchise's first playoff series win in 23 years, the Wizards sweated out a missed three-point try by Bulls forward Andres Nocioni. The celebration began after Tyson Chandler inexplicably shot - and missed - a foul-line jumper.
Gilbert Arenas got the rebound and tossed the ball into the crowd.
"That showed you what kind of team we have," Arenas said. "Tonight we went out and fought for our lives."
Said Larry Hughes: "This game was tough, the fact that we were sluggish and they came out and played hard. We just couldn't get it to go."
Until the final, frantic seconds.
The Wizards not only became the ninth team in NBA history to come back from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series, but they also did it by erasing a 10-point deficit in the third quarter, a 78-69 deficit with 10:47 to play and a 91-87 deficit with 3 1/2 minutes to go.
"It was a turnaround - they won the first quarter and we won the fourth quarter," said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, who puffed on a victory cigar like fellow Washingtonian Red Auerbach after the game. "It shows you what kind of team we have."
Said Ernie Grunfeld, the president of basketball operations: "We came up with some big plays down the stretch. It was a total team effort, everybody contributed, but it's been like that all year. We've had a lot of adversity all year, but the guys stuck together and persevered."
The team's Big Three - guards Hughes and Arenas, as well as forward Antawn Jamison - had 21, 19 and 19 points, respectively. But they combined to hit only 22 of 62 shots, including six of 24 by Arenas. Nocioni and Kirk Hinrich led the Bulls with 22 points each.
It took a terrific defensive play by a struggling Arenas to help fuel the final comeback. After Hinrich stripped Hughes of the ball and went in for a seemingly uncontested layup that would have given the Bulls a six-point lead, Arenas came from behind to block the shot.
"That was a big play, a huge play," Jordan said. "Gilbert didn't shoot the ball well, but great players will do everything they can do to win."
A tip-in by center Brendan Haywood started what turned into a game-ending 7-0 run for the Wizards. Hinrich made a turnover and Jamison hit a 19-footer to tie the game with 2:08 to play. After a flurry of missed shots - including a pair of potential go-ahead free throws by Haywood - the Bulls called time.
There was 1:40 to go when Hinrich inbounded the ball to Duhon, something they had done hundreds of times this season. For some reason, the rookie from Duke wasn't looking, and ball trickled off his back and was scooped up by Jeffries, who went in for the dunk.
"It was miscommunication," Duhon said. "We were supposed to be running one play and I ran the wrong play pretty much."
Said Bulls coach Scott Skiles: "We had a hard time executing at the end of the game."
The Wizards had a hard time executing for most of the night.
They trailed after the first quarter, 26-23, after shooting 8-for-21 from the field. They trailed at halftime, 54-52, and after briefly taking the lead at the start of the third quarter, fell behind 74-64 on Nocioni's jumper with 4:44 left in the quarter.
After tying the game at 87 with 3:48 left, the Wizards watched the Bulls go ahead 91-87 on a short hook by Chandler with 3:30 to go. While the defensive style of the game favored the pesky Bulls, Washington somehow managed to hang around long enough for the league's youngest team to show its inexperience.
It not only happened on the inbounds play, but also on the rushed three by Pargo and the hard-to-explain jumper by Chandler with time running down. Not that the Wizards played with much poise until the final minute. But it was enough for Washington to advance.
The Wizards will meet a Miami team that swept the New Jersey Nets and has been resting for nearly a week. The Heat won all four regular-season games from Washington, but the teams haven't seen each other since December. Already, the Wizards have heard the predictions.
"Like ESPN was on in our locker room and they're saying we're going 0-4," Jordan said. "We'll see what happens."