Basketball fans in nation's capital are thrilled to have the Washington Wizards back in the NBA playoffs for the first time since 1997. The Wizards extended their home winning streak against Chicago to nine games with a 117-99 victory.
Basketball fans in Washington are hungry for a winner. They have not seen the Wizards in the playoffs in seven years. Until Saturday the team had not won a playoff game since 1988. They have not captured a playoff series since 1982.
The Wizards lost the first two games of this first round Eastern Conference best-of-seven series in Chicago, playing in front of a delirious, sold-out crowd that rocked the United Center. Before Game Three on Saturday, Washington star-guard Gilbert Arenas asked Wizards fans to respond by booing the Bulls every time they touched the ball, and the jeers rained down on Chicago's players. The sold-out crowd waved white "rally towels" and cheered the Wizards enthusiastically, and Arenas appreciated it.
"I mean that feels good. You want that, you know. That is what the playoffs are about, that is what you want because it is uncomfortable when they are calling plays and they cannot hear each other because the crowd is just that loud," he said.
The Wizards play their best at home, having compiled a franchise best 29-12 record this season at the MCI Center. Washington is also considered the more talented team - more athletic and with better shooters. But in the first two games, the so-called "Baby Bulls" played with more confidence and displayed a tougher, defense-oriented style.
So if the Wizards want to prove their mettle, who better to be facing? The Bulls swept Washington out of the first round of the 1997 post season with three straight wins. But a Wizards fan named John says this time should be different.
"This is a team we should be able to beat," he said. "You know, we really did not have a chance coming in as the eighth seed [in 1997] so now we are the fifth seed this time around. We should be able to win this series. I think we have the better athletes."
Back in 1997 the Bulls were the best team in the NBA, led by the league's best player Michael Jordan. The Bulls won the league title in 1997 and won it again in 1998 for their sixth championship of the 1990s. But Chicago's management then decided it was time to rebuild the team. Coach Phil Jackson left and Michael Jordan retired. And like the Wizards, the Bulls have not been back to the playoffs until this year.
The Washington-Chicago connection was re-established in 2000 when Jordan surprised many by joining the Wizards as their President of Basketball Operations. The following year, he returned to the court and played for two seasons. Michael Jordan filled the MCI Center with fans, but was well past his prime by then and unable to lead Washington back to the playoffs.
Chicago has never lost a playoff series after winning the first two games. They are 21-1 when they lead a series 2-0. But Bulls guard Chris Duhon told VOA Sports that his team learned from the loss.
"Just because we won two games I think we kind of relaxed a little bit and thought this one was going to be easy, and that they would not come out and try to grab it. So we did not come with the right mind set in this game. But we learned our lessons and we have to be prepared on Monday," he said.
It remains to be seen if the Wizards can beat the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs and advance for the first time in 23 years. Only four teams have come back to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games under the current 16-team format.