The Washington Wizards enter their first playoff matchup since 2007 at just the right time.

The team is as healthy as it’s been all season, and valuable backups have gathered experience while other players sat out. Point guard John Wall arrives to the postseason fresh off his first All-Star appearance; Bradley Beal and Nene are finally healthy and shooting sharply and veteran additions such as Drew Gooden, Andre Miller and Al Harrington are in sync and playing well. But even with all those pieces together, the Wizards are the underdog against a cohesive Chicago Bulls unit led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Joakim Noah. It’ll take a herculean effort from the Wizards to dethrone a consistently good Chicago team, even though Chicago will play without superstar Derrick Rose for another postseason.

Washington has to get out and run against Chicago. The Wizards have trouble scoring when they’re forced into a half-court game, and the Bulls specialize in half-court defense. But when Wall is on the loose in the open court, he’s able to find sharpshooters such as Beal, Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster for three-pointers. Even Harrington can stretch the court from deep. The Wizards have used that strategy all season to finish in the top five in the NBA in three-point shooting as a team. Wall might be the fastest player in the league, and with Rose sitting, Chicago doesn’t have a point guard on its roster with the athleticism to keep up with the fourth-year Wizards guard. The coaching matchup doesn’t favor Washington; Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is one of the best in the league while the Wizards’ Randy Wittman has one of the worst coaching records of all time. But Wittman has never had a collection of talent like this, so he could be ready for a breakthrough should things fall in Washington’s favor.

Chicago’s toughness could also be a problem for Washington as they journey into unchartered waters. The Wizards haven’t been on the right side of the win column in years, while playoff trips have been a consistent theme in Chicago since the Michael Jordan days. In fact, Washington has played Chicago twice in their last five playoff appearances, splitting the two series. The Wizards have the talent to trump the Bulls as the lower seed in the No. 4 versus No. 5 matchup. They may not have the coaching or the cohesiveness that they’ll need to triumph over Chicago. But if Wall can finagle the Bulls’ defense, and he’s able to get out and run on a consistent basis, Washington has the talent to advance.

Prediction: Washington wins in six games.


Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO