The affair is going on six years now, Juan Dixon and metropolitan Washington. You mention his name in NBA circles and you don't get much of a reaction. Here, he's Midas. There's always a soft spot for the kid who brought the local school its only national championship. If he never made another basket in his life, his money's no good around here. You say Juan Dixon and Steve Blake and people just automatically smile. But Dixon isn't ready to live off the nostalgia of Maryland. He's too young and has too much ambition to spend the rest of his life thumbing through a scrapbook.
His team, his professional team, needed him in Game 4 of this playoff series against Chicago. Dixon already knew that after going 1 for 10 in Game 3. So he found his coach and asked him not to lose faith, then found his way to the gym on Sunday and took hundreds of shots in an effort to be ready for last night. And in his most significant game since beating Kansas and Indiana in the Final Four, Dixon hit 11 of 15 shots and scored a game-high 35 points, pretty as you please. Threes, pull-ups, mid-range, floaters. It was like a flashback to 2002 in Atlanta when Dixon lit up Kansas, including Kirk Hinrich, for 33 points in the national semifinal. "Felt like I was in that mode again," he said.
"When I asked Coach Jordan not to lose faith in me, he said, 'I won't.' And I got my act together and came through for my team tonight."
It seems he's always coming through for his team, though he's no star, though nobody is going to put him in the same sentence as Reggie Miller. Dixon got his act together and so, after two losses in Chicago, have the Wizards.
The series might be tied 2-2, but the Washington Wizards are in firm control of it. There are times in the playoffs when the best team realizes it, the opponent realizes it, and the direction of the competition becomes difficult, if not impossible, to change. After last night's lopsided Game 4 beat down of the Bulls, the Wizards ought to know they're the better team in this series. The Wizards ought to know they're superior in talent, quicker, stronger and better prepared to handle the rigors of a seven-game series.
The Wizards' goal now has to be not to let this series go that far. There's no reason, now that they've shown an interest in rebounding and playing something that looks reasonably like playoff defense, that the Wizards shouldn't travel to Chicago and take the critical Game 5 tomorrow. Game 5s are a lot easier to win on the road than Game 7s.
The Wizards return to Chicago playing more confidently than they've played all season, while the Bulls' confidence is shot. It's as if Games 1 and 2 never happened. This is what the push and pull of playoff basketball can do to both teams, and to the momentum of a series. An hour before the game, Bulls Coach Scott Skiles stood in the hallway outside his team's locker room appearing utterly convinced his team would play much better than it did in losing Game 3 here on Saturday.
"I can write that one off," Skiles said, "as just something strange that happened."
Skiles then outlined the blueprint for his team to win Game 4 and return home with a chance to close it out tomorrow. Chicago, he said, would have to protect the ball and not hand over stupid turnovers and stop the Wizards from grabbing offensive rebounds.
So what did the Bulls do? They came out and committed four turnovers and gave up four offensive rebounds while missing their first four shots of the game. It went from 10-2 to 15-2 to 34-17 to 42-22. The Bulls couldn't do anything well. They were virtually dysfunctional the first 16 minutes, making only 25 percent of their shots (8 of 32) and stumbling around like a lottery team instead of a playoff team. You've never seen as many layups missed in one playoff game in your life as the Bulls missed in the first half of Game 4. The Wizards, meanwhile, were scoring with such efficiency they didn't even need a first-half contribution from Gilbert Arenas, who didn't score a basket the first 17 minutes of the game. He didn't need to, not with Dixon scoring 12 of 13 points to help Washington break the game open. Dixon had a game-high 16 at halftime.
For most nights the last two seasons, the warmest, if not loudest, applause at MCI Center is reserved for Dixon, what with folks around here still tingly with the feeling Dixon helped create around here in March 2002. Jordan, relaying the story of Dixon finding him in the MCI Center garage after Game 3, said he told Dixon he got the point. But Dixon persisted, wanting to make sure his coach knew he was dependable enough to go to the rest of this series. "It was 10 minutes before I could close my [car] door," Jordan said.
It had to be Dixon's most satisfying game since leaving College Park, given the magnitude, given that he'd love to be as vital to an NBA team as he was to the Terrapins for three years. He even opened the fourth quarter with nine straight points, pushing the Wizards' lead to 26 and ensuring they could withstand a furious Chicago comeback that won't have as much carryover to Game 5 as some would have you believe.
Suddenly, it's the Bulls who appear to have no clue as to how to play defense. Suddenly, the Bulls aren't beating the Wizards in all the hustle areas as was the case the first two games. Suddenly, Chicago is downright rattled. And they don't have spare days to try to find their game for Game 5 . The whole team looks to be as sick as Ben Gordon is reported to be. Oh, did you know Bulls point guard Chris Duhon injured his back yesterday morning and played only nine minutes?
Of course, even in all the evening's feel good it's impossible not to address the absence of one Kwame Brown, who missed the game with a stomach virus.
It's sad really that Brown, after four years, can't find the professionalism necessary to contribute to a team on the rise, one that could use him, one that trusted him enough to take him with the No. 1 pick in the entire draft and tolerate all his excuses for four years. You can't miss a home playoff game with a stomach virus -- unless you've been hospitalized. You come and put your uniform on even if you have to run to the bathroom 20 times during the game. Can you imagine Allen Iverson missing a home playoff game with a stomach virus? Dwyane Wade? Jermaine O'Neal of the Pacers is playing right now with one arm against the Celtics. A stomach virus?
It really is time for Kwame Brown to go, isn't it?
Fortunately for the Wizards, they don't need Brown right now. They're better off without him. They're getting contributions from the Big Three of Arenas, Jamison and Hughes. Etan Thomas and now Dixon have come off the bench to contribute the kind of performances that role players are supposed to come up with for teams with serious aspirations.
It's the Wizards series to win now, even with Game 5 and a potential Game 7 in Chicago. They've shown everybody involved they're the better team, provided they continue for two more games doing exactly what they did here Saturday and yesterday.