The Bulls flew home late Monday night, returning to where Andres Nocioni no longer will be booed on each touch, Kirk Hinrich might receive a call or two more and Ben Gordon might find his missing shooting stroke under Benny the Bull's costume or something.

The comfort should be welcomed after a miserably uncomfortable night at the MCI Center.

Washington made it so, exerting its will and forcing its preferred tempo on an uncharacteristically rattled Bulls team that awoke far too late.

The Wizards evened this best-of-seven first-round series with a 106-99 victory that gives no indication of their dominance throughout, with even the Bulls dismissing their own fourth-quarter pride check.

"That would be called a whuppin' where I come from, and there'd be a word in front of it too," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. "Right from the beginning, obviously it's an understatement that they attacked us. We didn't have any answers. We looked wide-eyed, and their athleticism and quickness clearly got to us."

Game 5 is at 6 p.m. Wednesday night at the United Center. If the Bulls lose that game, they'll come to Friday's Game 6 knowing they've lost 10 straight at the MCI Center.

And if momentum isn't on Washington's side, at least health is.

Chris Duhon suffered back spasms at the morning shootaround and didn't play in the second half. Gordon is still battling a cold, and his jumper is pretty ill as well.

The natural inclination after a loss like this is to crumple up the box score and throw it away.

Of course, the Bulls might've missed a wastebasket, too, given that they shot 33.7 percent. On the eve of being presented with the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award, Gordon missed 12 of 13 shots.

"I just had a bad game," Gordon said. "No excuses."

At the other end of the shooting spectrum, Washington guard Juan Dixon couldn't miss.

Coming off a 1-for-10 performance in a series in which he had shot just 23.5 percent, Dixon scored a career-high 35 points on 10-for-10 free-throw shooting and 11-for-15 shooting from the field. Several of Dixon's shots were of the count-the-seams, uncontested variety, which left the Bulls steaming mad and provoked comments that were far more on target than their performance.

"For whatever reason, we played like a bunch of front-runners," a disgusted Hinrich said. "We didn't have the guts to step up and make big plays. We weren't competing. And defensively, we were awful. We definitely have to regroup.

"We acted like we were surprised they came out like that. We should've known."

Washington, which also received 23 points from Gilbert Arenas and 18 from Antawn Jamison, led by as many as 28 before an unlikely lineup of Lawrence Funderburke, Tyson Chandler, Jannero Pargo, Eric Piatkowski and Adrian Griffin mounted a fourth-quarter charge.

Pargo scored six points and Piatkowski five in a 15-2 run that trimmed the Bulls' deficit to 91-78. Skiles then employed his "Rough-a-Ruff" strategy, intentionally fouling Michael Ruffin.

But Ruffin hit three of four free throws and Arenas began celebrating by high-fiving fans.

Pargo wasn't through. He scored 10 of his 16 fourth-quarter points in the final 67 seconds, bringing the Bulls to within six twice in the final 23.6 seconds.

"That comeback means nothing because of all the mistakes we made early," said Chandler, who had 13 points and 13 rebounds.

Pargo and Hinrich led the Bulls with 18 points apiece.

Washington walked off to a standing ovation after seizing a 61-37 halftime lead, which prompted Skiles to write the halftime score and the words "valuable lesson" on the greaseboard inside the Bulls' locker room.

The Bulls shot 23.8 percent in the half and committed nine turnovers, while Dixon scored 16 points and Jamison had 14.

The Bulls missed their first three shots and committed four turnovers as Washington stormed to a 15-2 lead.

Othella Harrington picked up two fouls in the first 2:22 and forgotten Wizards like Dixon and Jared Jeffries provided energy and offense early.

"They have the momentum now," Gordon said. "We had it, but we lost it. When we get back home, we have to find some way to slow down that momentum."

kcjohnson@tribune.com