What the Bulls will likely regret most about Tuesday night's game was the way they finished, but the start was arguably even more damaging. The Bulls were expectedly hyped-up with a chance to even up the series, but the Wizards came out and immediately hit them hard. John Wall and Bradley Beal each made their first shots of the game, which was foreboding enough, and then Nene looked to be continuing his hot play with 2 midrange jumpers. The Wiz overall hit 4 of their first 6 from three.
The Bulls started their distance-shooting at 0/4, and besides a couple driving layups from Noah they turned the ball over more as much as they scored. The Wizards were switching a lot on the perimeter (their roster is uniquely capable of this) which seemed to give the Bulls fits, and while Carlos Boozer may have had a decent game 1 but he was horrendous here (0/3 with a turnover in his first stint). TNT's Steve Kerr started going in deep with the narrative that the Bulls are just not as talented as the Wizards, and even a heightened 'energy' wasn't saving them at this point. As tired as one gets hearing that story, it was hard to argue.
Things were so bad that the deficit ballooned to 17 early and Thibs went to not only DJ Augustin and Taj Gibson but also Nazr Mohammed and Tony Snell before the 1st quarter was over. That first move paid off, simply because Augustin and Gibson were magnificent. They combined for 27 points in the first half, ultimately matching Wall and Beal's combined points in that time. DJ hit 4-5 from deep, bouncing back significant from his poor playoff opener: given more space than usual and attacking the Wizards defense without taking screens. Taj had 5 offensive rebounds and was bringing his usual gamechanging activity to both ends.
The traditional halves-closing lineup was on a 18-6 run, between DJ's shooting, Taj destroying Drew Gooden, and the Bulls bigs doing a better job driving the ball (usually on Gortat, who was terrible in this game). However, it was mitigated a bit at the end by Wall, who had 5 huge points to end the half with his team up 7.
Again, the Bulls looked to be playing their type of game, and pretty well: they ultimately had 49 points at halftime, the PG combo was going well (Hinrich was 4-6 in the first half to go along with DJ's monster line), they were dominating the offensive glass (42% Offensive Rebound Rate in first half), and the bigs were being allowed to maim the Wiz (hey, it's the playoffs! right? Even let Hinrich try to goad Beal into a scuffle) on several occasions whether it was for those rebounds or other loose balls.
But the troublesome signs were there: it was just not a good defensive first half. Even in the stretch where DJ was lighting things up, he was still being partially mitigated by Andre Miller on the other end (staring down refs instead of getting back on defense didn't help, either). And the Wizards hot start wasn't totally dampened by halftime as they still wound up at 54% shooting for the half. The Bulls did show their intensity, the Wizards also did very well on the offensive glass (31%) with Trevor Booker resembling a homeless man's Taj Gibson.
As you would hope for this team that won a lot of similar games this season, things got a lot better in the 3rd quarter. Perhaps it was helped by getting Augustin into the game two minutes in after Hinrich's 4th foul, as DJ proceeded to simply outplay John Wall. Behind Augustin (6 points on 3/4 shooting), the Bulls shot 12/19 in the quarter with zero turnovers. Wall was 0-1 and had 4 fouls. Even Boozer and Dunleavy had productive stretches, making it even more curious that neither (ok, at least in Dunleavy's case) didn't play more down the stretch.
And the Wizards seemingly kept making this a game the Bulls could (and would) take. They missed their first 4 FTs very early in the second half and it stayed that bad: going 5/16 from the line in the second half. They also had 7 turnovers, and some really poor shot selection including a few possessions from Wall where he was bizarrely casual with the ball. The Bulls had claimed the lead at the 5 minute mark of the 3rd quarter as a part of a 12-3 run, and were doing just enough to look like they'd seize control the game. But it was worrisome that they were never quite breaking the game open. For a long while the lead stayed around 7-8, whether it was a timely 3 or some great work being done by Nene (yet again...) to at least stop the bleeding.
With Augustin forced in the second half so early, you had to add him to the usual suspects of those who'd potentially tire late, and combining that with the general late-game struggles this offense has had against solid defenses the lead never felt too safe. 10 points is a pretty substantial margin with nearly 7 minutes to go, but not when you just can't score. Kirk Hinrich was subbed in for Dunleavy nearly a minute later, allowing the Wiz to switch Trevor Ariza onto Augustin who was then held scoreless the rest of the game. Hinrich assumed the lead guard role in that time and shot 1 for 6. The collapse was on (and we'll have more on that), aided by poor officiating but caused by poorer offense, and making one feel worse was that the Bulls had exerted so much to get that lead in the first place.