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With the sellout crowd in a pregame frenzy and both teams anxious to begin Game 3, officials briefly delayed the opening tip Saturday as smoke from pregame indoor fireworks clouded the MCI Center.
The cloud eventually vanished into a wisp, but once the officiating crew tossed the tipoff there was nothing frail, slight or fleeting about Washington's purpose or approach.
With all the subtlety of an elbow or a slam dunk off an offensive rebound, the Wizards played with a sense of desperation and determination as they knocked the Bulls on their heels in a 117-99 victory.
In posting its first playoff victory since May 4, 1988, Washington muscled its way to 21 offensive rebounds, attacked to earn 49 free throws and trimmed its deficit in the best-of-seven NBA playoff series to 2-1. Game 4 is here Monday night.
"We're just frustrated," guard Kirk Hinrich said. "We did a good job early of withstanding the runs and the crowd. But we had overall foul trouble. I don't know if we lost our aggressiveness and stopped making the second and third defensive effort or what.
"If we're going to win this series, we're going to do it defensively. We just weren't good enough [Saturday]."
Gilbert Arenas bulled his way to 32 points, seven assists, seven rebounds and 11 trips to the free-throw line. Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison added 21 points apiece for Washington.
Washington's so-called Big Three is expected to produce such numbers.
But perhaps as payback to the Bulls' reserves turning the tide of Game 2, Etan Thomas scored 20 points in 23 minutes and added nine rebounds. Former Bull Michael Ruffin added a season-high nine points.
Both were instrumental in a game-turning 13-2 run that turned a 74-71 game into an 87-73 Wizards lead in the third quarter. In this stretch, Washington did what the Bulls usually dogot to loose balls, penetrated and passed, made the hustle plays.
"I'm disappointed we let Etan Thomas beat us," Tyson Chandler said. "That's no knock. He played great. But we can win with those three (Arenas, Jamison, Hughes) putting up their numbers. We just can't allow a player like Thomas coming off the bench to beat us."
Thomas and Ruffin were able to inflict their damage, in part, because of the Bulls' widespread foul trouble. This led to less physical defense on the perimeter, which led to drives, which led to passes for easy baskets or offensive reboundsa domino effect of defeat.
"I would say simply we were less physical than we have been," said coach Scott Skiles, who praised the officiating. "We had a really hard time containing their guards, and that put a lot of pressure on our bigs to come and help. That's what opened up the offensive glass for them."
Said Chandler: "They became the aggressor and we became timid."
Earlier, the Bulls met Washington's forceful approach and trailed 57-55 at halftime.
But Hinrich picked up his fourth foul 19 seconds after halftime and the Bulls began deflating.
"Even though we had it close at halftime, I thought they outplayed us beginning to end," Skiles said. "They were after loose balls, all over the glass with multiple efforts. They deserved to win. You look across the board and they had four guys who scored more points than any one of our guys. And the quickness with which they played, we weren't able to match it."
Before fouling out, Chandler scored 15 points to lead six Bulls in double figures. Hinrich and Antonio Davis added 13 apiece, the latter drawing an ejection as he argued the call that fouled him out with 5:03 remaining.
The Bulls scored just 44 second-half points, shot 39.3 percent overall and found their league-leading turnover form with 19 miscuesexactly half their foul total.
"A foul is a mistake," Skiles said. "That's how we look at it. We weren't in the proper position like we have been. They made a concerted effort to drive the ball and get to the line. And they did."
And now, this first-round series is competitive rather than a cakewalk.
"We're fine," Chandler said. "You have to forget about it. The beautiful thing about this is that we play them Monday. I'm pretty sure that we're going to be hyped and ready to come back."