WASHINGTON (AP) - If empty seats are any indication, the Washington Wizards are just as big of a surprise in their own city as they are to the rest of the NBA.
After winning their first two games on the road in one of the most intimidating arenas in the league - the United Center - the Wizards are curious to see what it'll be like when they host their first playoff game in six years. Usually it's the crowd that spurs on the players in the postseason, but in this case there's hope that the team's performance will generate a spirited turnout Friday night for Game 3 against the Chicago Bulls.
"Come on out and enjoy playoff basketball. Be ready to join the show and get in at tip-off or before," owner Ted Leonsis wrote Thursday on his blog. "Don't be too cool for school and stroll in at end of first period - I never understood that about some NBA crowds. You pay for a full game of basketball; get in the mix with your friends and family at tip-off, please."
Washington ranked 18th among 30 NBA teams in attendance this season, averaging 17,026. But that figure is misleading because D.C. crowds are notoriously late-arriving - the NFL Redskins have been known to practically beg fans to show up for the opening kickoff - and the tip-off atmosphere for Wizards games at the Verizon Center is sometimes nonexistent.
"You definitely notice it," guard Bradley Beal said. "Especially when you first run onto the floor and there's nobody there. You look up in the third quarter and everybody's there. So we definitely need that crowd to be loud for us in the beginning and get us going."
The Wizards were 22-19 at home this season, worst among the 16 teams that made the playoffs. However, they won all four of their sellouts: two against the Miami Heat, and once each against the Brooklyn Nets and Oklahoma City Thunder.
The transient nature of the area means D.C. fans are often cheering the opponent. During one Heat game the Wizards playfully mocked those wearing Miami colors by featuring them on a "Bandwagon Cam" on the video scoreboard.
Of course, the home team hadn't been cheer-worthy until recently. The Wizards went through a long bad spell after their previous playoff appearance in 2008, and they opened their home slate this season by laying an egg against the going-nowhere Philadelphia 76ers.
"We had a good record on the road," forward Nene said. "But at home we need to pay attention a little bit more."
Now that the playoffs are here, coach Randy Wittman expects the volume to be up. The Wizards will add color to the occasion - literally - by going red, white and blue, leaving red T-shirts for fans sitting in the lower bowl, white for those in the middle and blue for the ones near the rafters.
"We've got some really great loyal people that's been here through some tough times, that stuck with us," Wittman said. "Chicago was electric, and I don't anticipate anything different here."
It's worth noting that all the noise in the world didn't help the Bulls. Chicago blew double-digit leads in the second halves of the first two games, and the Bulls lacked a reliable go-to scoring option down the stretch.
The Bulls didn't practice Thursday, but the message from coach Tom Thibodeau and his players this week has been consistent: The games have been close, so it's not time to reinvent the wheel or shake up a rotation that doesn't have much depth.
"You've got to rock with what you've got," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "You've got to play with whoever's out there on the court. The room for error is short."
The Wizards, meanwhile, are trying to guard against overconfidence. Leonsis pointed out that his NHL Capitals - who play in the same building - have lost a seven-game series after winning the first two on the road, in 2003 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"That lesson can't be lost on any one," Leonsis wrote. "It isn't lost on me."
Point guard John Wall was asked if the Wizards were thinking sweep. He said he was only thinking of Game 3.
"If you're thinking sweep and you lose Game 3," Wall said, "now you're in a bind."