Some pegged Nene's suspension as a death sentence for the Wizards. They boast the worst home record of any playoff team and the supposed MVP of their postseason run was about to miss a crucial Game 4. It had the makings of another #SoWizards moment.
I had very little doubt a letdown was looming. One of the reasons why is Trevor Booker. He's a workhorse on the boards and his intensity level is always high while the rest of his teammates seemingly go through lulls of halfhearted play, but there's a reason why he'd been in and out of Randy Wittman's doghouse until this season. His aggressive play tends to get him in trouble on defensive rotations, and he shrinks the floor spacing on offense.
That letdown never happened, though, and Booker was a big reason why. His rotations were crisp, he made the adjustment by showing on Mike Dunleavy as he came off screens and gave Carlos Boozer all sorts of fits as he tried backing him down. It was one part of a team-wide effort. Chicago's offense calls for their big men to function as facilitators out of the high post by executing dribble handoffs or picking out cutters on the weak side, but Washington's wings redirected many of those actions, duping Boozer and Noah into jumpers.
This was how the Wizards jumped out to a 14-0 lead just four minutes into the game. They set the tone early and never looked back.
Chicago does a lot of cross-screening down low to free up Gibson and Boozer on the block. Noah works almost exclusively out of the elbow area to work the high/low action, and they'll run curl shooters off those cross-screens in order to bend the defense.
But by Game 4, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Bradley Beal was correctly fixated on shutting down Dunleavy, but this is pure instinct at play. He knows Noah isn't getting the ball to Dunleavy in the corner, so he wisely switches assignments, beats Boozer to the ball and gets the steal.
This happened all afternoon. The Wizards anticipated everything Chicago was going to run, and that's where the Bulls lack of improvisation kicked in. The Wizards held a subdued Bulls offense to under 90 points for the first time all series and it could have been a lot worse if it weren't for their 20 second-chance points or all of the free throws in the second quarter to cut the deficit.
But again, this was all about taking away their first two options, and it worked because everyone was working on a string. The backside rotations between Marcin Gortat and Booker -- the latter of which struggled in this area earlier in the season -- were on point on Sunday, and it allowed the guards to put pressure on ball handlers. You want Kirk Hinrich beating you if he's able to break the press. If he's the one taking a floater in the lane or an off-the-dribble jumper because his outlets are shut off, you live with it.
I pinpointed this exact set after Game 3. Hinrich is up top, and he can go in either direction. Jimmy Butler is stationed at the elbow and can flare out for the three or run to the corner. But the main target is Dunleavy, who's going to curl tightly off Noah's screen. The adjustment is made here, though. Booker is going to leave his mark in order to show on Dunleavy to take away his catch-and-shoot, which gives Beal enough time to recover.
There's a lot going on here. Hinrich decides to penetrate the lane after seeing Booker jump out, and Gortat knowingly slides over to the middle of the lane to thwart Hinrich's drive to the basket and take away his pass to Noah. But while all this happens, Ariza makes one small contribution to completely blow up this set. He goes under an off-ball screen, not to bait Butler into staying on the perimeter, but rather to take away Hinrich's third pass: the dump off to Boozer. This forces Kirk to loft up the floater.
Any defense will live with a Hinrich floater.
Coming into the series we all knew the matchup advantages favoring the Wizards in the backcourt. We knew if Beal and Wall stepped up on defense, it would completely rattle Hinrich, D.J. Augustin,and Dunleavy. But in the three games prior to Sunday, each one of those aforementioned Chicago players broke out. Hinrich dropped 16 points in Game 1, Augustin went for 25 points in Game 2 and Dunleavy, of course, completely torched the Wizards for 35 points in Game 4.
The ball pressure was heightened in Game 4, and that Chicago trio was held to just 21 points total on 9-30 shooting.
You don't see it often, but when dialed in, Wall can be a menace on opposing ball handlers. He gets up on you and has the ability to shade you in either direction because he's so quick and strong. Here, he funnels Hinrich toward to the baseline, but once he sees Booker in help position, he flips his stance and gets on Hinrich's hip. This forces Hinrich toward the middle of the floor, where he has no choice but to give the ball up.
Then it's Beal's turn. He does exactly what Jimmy Butler has done to him all series. He crowds Dunleavy, gets in between his mark and Boozer and takes away the dribble handoff twice. Booker slides over on the second attempt in case Boozer decides to fling the ball over the top to Dunleavy cutting to the basket, which gives Boozer enough space to fire up the jumper. But again, the Wizards will gladly take this result.
All of this transpired in the first three minutes of the game, but all three plays were instrumental in setting the tone the rest of the way. Washington survived a playoff game without Nene, a feat no one could have fathomed at the beginning of the year.