CHICAGO (AP) Playoff appearances were rare enough for the Washington Wizards let alone series victories. Never mind all that now.
John Wall finished with 24 points, Nene scored 20, and the Wizards beat the Chicago Bulls 75-69 on Tuesday night to clinch their first-round series in five games.
Bradley Beal scored 17 points, and the fifth-seeded Wizards advanced in the postseason for just the third time since the 1970s.
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They will meet Indiana or Atlanta in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Hawks lead the series 3-2.
It’s a huge step for a franchise that hadn’t been to the postseason since 2008, but with Wall and Beal leading the way, they won 44 games during the regular season.
”It just shows our continued growth,” Beal said. ”We played great basketball in this series and we can only continue to get better and better.”
As for the Bulls?
”It is real disappointing,” Taj Gibson said. ”We put so much work into the season, came out of countless holes.”
The Wizards turned a halftime tie into a nine-point lead heading into the fourth quarter and hung on down the stretch.
Chicago’s comeback chances took a big hit early in the final quarter when Gibson crumbled to the court clutching his left ankle after he tried to block a layup by Wall with the Wizards up by six points. He had to be helped off the court and did not return.
The Bulls got within three points in the closing minutes but couldn’t grab rebounds when they needed them, particularly after D.J. Augustin hit two free throws to make it 72-69 with 2:18 left.
The Wizards grabbed three offensive rebounds while whittling more than a minute off the clock before Beal threw the ball away with a minute left in the game.
Carlos Boozer missed on a drive, but the Bulls couldn’t convert after a shot-clock violation by Washington with 22.4 seconds left. Chicago’s Jimmy Butler missed on a layup off the inbounds, and the Wizards caught a break after Andre Miller missed two free throws.
Nene tracked down the loose ball and Beal hit the first free throw to make it 73-69 with 14.6 seconds left before missing the second. But Nene got another rebound, and that led to two free throws by Wall with 7.8 seconds remaining.
Nene was back to wreaking havoc after serving a one-game suspension for grabbing Butler’s head, whether he was knocking down jumpers or scoring inside. He hit 10 of 17 shots and grabbed seven rebounds.
Wall also had seven boards and hit 9 of 11 free throws. Marcin Gortat grabbed 13 rebounds, and the Wizards did something they have rarely done the past three-and-a-half decades – they moved on.
The playoffs have mostly been one-and-done affairs for them – with a few exceptions – since they lost to Seattle in the 1979 Finals. They knocked off New Jersey 2-0 in the first round in 1982 and took out Chicago in six games in 2005.
In this series, they showed a resolve and killer instinct that wasn’t always there in the regular season.
”The main thing is to focus in and know what this team is capable of,” Wall said. ”I just give a lot of credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the great game plan and making adjustments and committing ourselves to play on every given night.”
For the Bulls, a season that unfolded in ways they never envisioned is finally over. They expected to challenge Miami for supremacy in the Eastern Conference with Derrick Rose back after sitting out last season, only to lose their star to another season-ending knee injury. As if that wasn’t enough, they traded away one of their top remaining players in Luol Deng yet somehow squeezed out 48 victories. No team in the East won more games after New Year’s Eve, either, but slow starts and poor shooting plagued them in this series.
Butler and Kirk Hinrich scored 16 points each and Gibson had 12 for the Bulls.
Joakim Noah, whose left knee has bothering him the past few months, added 18 rebounds and seven assists. Boozer, a candidate to be amnestied, added 10 points and nine rebounds in what might have been his final appearance for Chicago. The Wizards outscored the Bulls 20-11 in the third quarter to turn a 41-41 halftime tie into a 61-52 lead going into the fourth.
”I am proud of this team,” Noah said. ”I am proud of the way we competed all year. We dealt with a lot. Whenever a season is over it is always tough.”
NOTES: The Wizards outrebounded the Bulls 49-43 overall and 15-8 in the fourth quarter. … Nene declined comment about his suspension at the Wizards’ shootaround, saying, ”I don’t want to talk about that.” … Gibson on his injury: ”Real painful. I got to see what they (the medical staff) say tomorrow.”