It's true that one regular season game can matter more than another, but in an 82 game season, very rarely will you say that one game is truely a "season changer." It's a hollow phrase that gets tossed around a lot, but rarely actually has as deep a meaning as it's intended to convey. However, tonight's win over the Bulls qualifies as a season-changer, and it's legitimate to say that the Wizards are a true contender for the Eastern Conference crown after seeing this performance.
Why tonight? The mark of a real conference contender is this. Can your team find a way to win if your opponent takes away your strengths, keeps coming hard at you, and makes you play their game? Even during the Wizards' great December, I hadn't seen that from this team. Their signature wins over Phoenix, the Lakers, and Dallas came in games where they played their game to win. But tonight, against a Bulls team that had their number in the past, the Wizards won playing Chicago's game. They won with their two best players struggling nearly the entire game, and they won by taking Chicago's physicality and fighting through it. Chicago played a great game tonight; the Wizards were just better.
Yes, there are some mitigating factors. The game was in the phonebooth, where the Wizards are a different team. It's also true that the Bulls have been struggling a bit as of late, with 4 losses in their last 5. Finally, Bulls fans have somewhat of a legitimate beef against the officials (the two technicals were quick, to say the least), even if the free throw margin was pretty even. But none of that should take away from this win. Every time it looked bad, the Wizards would respond, either with a defensive stop or a key play offensively. That's the sign of a really good team.
The list of heroes tonight stretches far, but nobody deserves more credit for this win than DeShawn Stevenson and Antonio Daniels. Usually, Stevenson's points come on open jumpers created by Arenas, but not tonight. With the Bulls clamping down on Arenas and Butler early in the third, it was Stevenson who was the Wizards' go to guy. He hit four huge jumpers (all contested, by the way) to give the Wizards a cushion. Once Chicago came back, it was Daniels that gave the Wizards a huge lift. His improbable three-point play at the end of the third stopped a Bulls run, and his fadeaway three midway through the fourth ignited the came-changing 12-0 run that put the game away. Usually, these guys capitalize on space given by Arenas, but tonight, with Arenas really held in check by Kirk Hinrich, they did it on their own. That's a huge sign from a team that has been struggling with their supporting cast all season.
Throw it down, DeShawn! Throw it down!"
I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about Caron Butler, who played perhaps the most complete game I've ever seen him play tonight. He struggled mightly from the field, but he was tenacious on the glass with 7 rebounds, dished out 10 assists, and played perhaps the best defense I've seen him play all year in holding Luol Deng down to 13 points. He even added 3 steals, aiding in a solid defensive effort that forced 19 Chicago turnovers. At this point, I don't see how you can't put him on the all-star team, considering his all-around numbers. He's simply been doing it all recently, even on defense.
Really, everyone had a great game except for Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood. Jamison was his solid self with 18 and 9. Jarvis Hayes hit some big shots, even if he also had a couple headscratchers. Etan Thomas played very well in his first game back, and Andray Blatche continued to show why he needs regular playing time with 6 solid minutes and one huge throwdown. Overall, the Wizards reserves outscored a deep Chicago bench 32-30, and that's including Ben Gordon's 25 points. Essentially, if you swap Gordon for Chris Duhon -- because Gordon got starters minutes -- the margin was 32-8. That's almost unheard of for this crop of reserves.
Overall, that was a huge, huge win, and I'm really starting to feel good about this team. My 50 win prediction to start the season is starting to look pretty strong.
Consider this an open thread for celebration. Post, post away!