WASHINGTON -- There comes a point in most every playoff series when both teams know who's better. Bulls-Wizards pretty much reached that point four minutes into Game 4, when Washington's Trevor Ariza hit a 3-pointer to give the Wizards a two-touchdown lead at 14-0.
The Bulls got within 24-18, but the Wizards pushed to 32-18. The Bulls got within 36-30 only to have the Wizards extend to 52-36. And the pattern continued right through the fourth quarter; the Wizards' first-round flurry held up.
The Bulls could never get truly close, could never protect the ball against the Wizards defense, could never figure out a way to exploit the absence of suspended Nene Hilario and, most important, could never find a way to offset the skill of a more talented opponent.
These adversaries have developed more than respect for each other through four games; it's bordering on admiration. The Wizards love the Bulls' tenacity and resourcefulness. The Bulls, while they wouldn't dare say so publicly, have to be a little jealous of all the speed and quickness on the other side, particularly the young explosive backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal.
The lasting image of Game 4 is likely that of Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin trying to get away, unsuccessfully, from Beal or Wall. Hinrich missed 9 of 12 shots and Augustin missed 7 of 10. Beal and Wall didn't set the world on fire (combined 11-for-28), but they passed the ball well, protected it even better and defended with attitude.
You want the only number that matters from Game 4? The Wizards committed a grand total of six turnovers, while the Bulls' point guards, Hinrich and Augustin, committed six all by themselves. The Bulls, in all, turned it over 16 times, and most of them were forced mistakes.
The Wizards have evolved to a point of athletic arrogance at which they know they're better than the opponent, meaning there's nothing the Bulls can do about certain physical realities. Beal, still 20 years old, had the kind of honesty self-check that, if done regularly, can help a good player become a great one soon enough. After getting torched by Mike Dunleavy for a career-high 35 points in Game 3 that led the Bulls to their only win of the series, Beal said, "I took that matchup pretty personally ... the way he scored 35 the last game. I took it as a personal grudge. He killed us the last game."
And Beal won the weekend rematch decisively: 18 points on 7-for-13 shooting, five rebounds, three assists, one turnover in 40 minutes. Dunleavy in 35 minutes? Six points, five rebounds, two assists, no 3-pointers. None. Zero. Dunleavy was even less of a factor than Carlos Boozer, who in 24 minutes had three baskets and five fouls in a waste-of-time performance.
The Wizards figured out between Games 3 and 4 that despite Friday night's loss they are the physically superior team, that they can guard the Bulls but the Bulls cannot guard them, and that if they come out and seize the lead, there isn't much the Bulls can do about it.
"It's pretty much started to be the same thing over and over again," Taj Gibson said afterward. "They come out and hit us first. ... I've been saying it's going to be a 15-round slugfest, but we gotta swing first, especially on the road. [Instead,] we were on our heels from the jump. It comes down to will and determination. They didn't have Nene and played harder.
"We were too relaxed. We gotta step on their necks right away. But they just jumped on us."
It's part of a new Wizards formula that makes them a better team than the Bulls now. The regular-season Wizards had little regard for the ball and could lose anytime to anybody; the postseason version has come to the point where it understands possession is everything. Six turnovers. So even when the Wizards missed 14 of 15 shots at one point in the fourth quarter, letting the Bulls cut the deficit from 20 to 10, the Wizards didn't compound the problem by throwing the ball away. Being so good with the ball enabled the big, early lead to hold up, which is where Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau started and finished his postgame analysis.
"The disappointing thing," he said, "was the start ... to get in that hole. You expend a lot of energy trying to get out of it.
"You get down 14-0, you're quickly giving them great confidence. That's the biggest thing right there."
There's no disagreeing with Thibs on this point. The Bulls are a team with terribly little margin for error. A win in Game 2 might have reinforced in the Wizards' minds that they're largely playoff neophytes; certainly they wouldn't have gained any confidence from a series-opening loss. But the Bulls, unable to hold that 13-point third-quarter lead, allowed the Wizards to start gaining confidence, and that doubled when they blew a 10-point lead in the final seven minutes of Game 2.
What is Hinrich, bless his heart, supposed to do at 33 years of age against the likes of Wall and Beal, a pair of perennial All-Stars in the making? Hinrich, at this point of his career, should be an off-the-bench ace, which is actually what he signed up to be, behind Derrick Rose. And Augustin, remember, was out of the league, the guy sitting by the phone waiting for a call. The Bulls are dependent on them in this series, dependent on them getting the best of a couple of young studs, and it's not going to happen.
No matter how good a coach Thibs is, the NBA is a players league. And what this series reminds us is that the Bulls aren't good enough, not without Rose and Luol Deng, not without Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli. They don't have the firepower or the kind of open-court defenders (besides Jimmy Butler) to win these games. Even though the Wizards shot just 41 percent Sunday, they still scored 98 points.
So, it's all grinding to a halt. The Bulls need a Wizards meltdown or an afternoon of absentmindedness to win the next two games and force a Game 7. If the two sides play evenly, the Wizards will win. They'll find some four-minute period in which the score goes 14-0 and they grab control of the game, the way they did in Games 1 and 2 and 4.