The Washington Wizards are flat-out dominating the Chicago Bulls. Even in the team’s Game 3 loss when Nene was ejected and the Wizards lost on a Jimmy Butler three, it still felt as if Washington had the upper hand in the series.
Now, after a huge 98-89 win in Game 4 on Sunday without Nene, the Wizards are looking to win the series on Tuesday. They seem ready to get it done immediately in Game 5.
“It’s an old saying: ‘Once satisfied, all forward progress ceases.’ So we don’t want to come in here satisfied with just three wins. We want to go in there and go for the jugular,” backup center Drew Gooden told Michael Lee of The Washington Post after Game 4.
The biggest reason they’re in this position? Their frontcourt.
Sure, the young backcourt of Bradley Beal and John Wall has been great—especially in Game 4—but Nene and Marcin Gortat have really put the Wizards over the top and in a position to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Although Chicago’s Joakim Noah was awarded the Defensive Player of the Year Award, Nene is taking him to task—at least in the three games Nene has played in. He was suspended in Game 4 for this altercation with Butler.
Although it has taken the Wizards all season to get fully healthy, they are now showing what their blend of young talent and veteran leadership can bring to the table, as Nene and Gortat dominate down low.
It’s for these three reasons that the two are doing so well and helping the Wizards win postseason games.
Nene’s Mid-Range Shot
Although Gortat has been a great asset for the Wizards on defense, his shooting performance has been nothing more than frustrating to watch.
Gortat is getting good looks at the basket, but he’s just not making them.
From inside eight feet, Gortat is making less than 50 percent of his shots. He is also completely cold between eight and 16 feet.
Meanwhile, Nene has been able to save the frontcourt’s offense by sinking mid-range shots—either as jumpers or just from the elbow.
He’s 13-of-26 from mid-range in three games, finding ways to get free around the perimeter, but inside of 15 feet. On pull-up shots, Nene is only missing a quarter of his shots through three games. He’s also dominating Noah in the post, shooting 72.73 percent from inside the restricted area.
Still, his mid-range shot has been the story of this series.
Over the first three games of the series, NBA pundits were praising the Brazilian for his performance in the face of Noah, who received the DPOY trophy right before Game 2.
Noah is usually a defender who clogs up passing lanes and prevents opposing players from cutting and driving to the basket. With Nene shooting more, he has to play tighter and closer to him, which takes Noah out of his comfort zone. However, he hasn’t changed his play style drastically.
As Mike Prada of Bullets Forever wrote after Game 1, Nene’s success creates a lot of matchup problems for Chicago:
More importantly, Thibodeau knows that if he makes too many changes to contain Nene, it opens up the very threats his defense was initially designed to contain: John Wall attacking the rim and open three-point shooters.
Not all is lost for Gortat on the offensive end. Although he’s not making a lot of his shots, he is at least setting screens for the offense, allowing the Wizards to create their own shots along the perimeter when Gortat and the other big men’s post games aren’t working.
Nevertheless, Nene is saving Gortat’s offensive struggles from being highlighted by performing so well on that end of the floor.
In Game 4, without Nene, Washington basically had to turn exclusively to its perimeter game and mid-range jumpers to produce on offense, which was successful.
For Game 5, though, the Wizards will be glad to have Nene back and Gortat out on the perimeter getting in the way and making it difficult for Bulls defenders to contest perimeter shots from Wall, Beal and Trevor Ariza.
Spacing on the Floor
Nene’s nice mid-range shot is fun to watch and all, but it really helps the other Wizards on the floor beyond points.
Having Gortat patrol the area around the basket and Nene moving from the restricted area out to the perimeter to take his 12-footer allows the Wizards to do what they do best—shoot threes.
Noah can defend on the perimeter very well and his presence can stop any point guard from driving to the basket, as Wall does so often.
Nene and Gortat are playing so well together in the frontcourt that the backcourt can stay on the perimeter and capitalize on defensive mistakes by Chicago.
In the postseason from three-point range, Beal is shooting 50 percent, Ariza is shooting 48.1 percent and Martell Webster is shooting 33.3 percent. In the regular season, Washington relied heavily on its ability to shoot the three, with Wall driving in and kicking it out to someone on the wings.
Butler is a strong defender along the perimeter, but Tom Thibodeau has been playing him a lot—he’s played at least 38 minutes in each game of the series, including 53 minutes in Game 2—and he is obviously falling off as a defender later in games.
Besides Butler, Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer are mainly paint defenders. While the Bulls are having to play D.J. Augustin more for his offensive abilities since no one else has been able to score, he isn’t as strong a defender as some of Chicago’s other options.
Even though Nene didn’t play in Game 4, the confidence of the Wizards from beyond the arc really showed through and fans can expect three-point shooting to be a theme for the remainder of this series.
Crippling Chicago’s Already-Struggling Offense
Coming into this series, the Wizards knew they had an advantage over the Bulls in the offensive department.
Besides Noah, no one on the team can really create scoring chances—except Mike Dunleavy Jr. in Game 3—and Nene and Gortat have only made scoring chances harder to come by.
In his four games, Gortat is holding opponents to just 47.8 percent shooting at the rim while recording seven total blocks.
Nene’s opponent field-goal percentage at the rim hasn’t been as good, but he is preventing Noah from getting in close, which is where he’s most effective. In three games, opponents facing Nene are only making 3.7 shots at the rim per game and attempting 5.3.
With Gibson and Noah on the floor, the Wizards will always take a mid-range jump shot over a shot attempt at the rim.
This is only making life harder for Chicago’s already-weak offense. Boozer is shooting just 42.9 percent on close shots, while Gibson is only scoring 2.5 points per game on close shots and Noah is scoring just 1.8.
During the regular season, Gibson was averaging 4.8 points in that category and Noah was averaging 3.2.
Butler has a decent three-point shot and Dunleavy can score when necessary—as he showed in Game 3—but other than that, the Bulls don’t have a go-to guy if Noah, Gibson and Boozer aren’t scoring in the low post.
This causes the Bulls to fall apart late in games, opening up the opportunity for the Wizards to seize this series.
All stats used were from NBA.com/Stats unless otherwise noted.