WASHINGTON -- The game-defining moment came late in the first quarter, when the Washington Wizards became more than just the Big Three. Larry Hughes drew a double team and passed to a wide-open Etan Thomas, whose two-handed dunk raised the roof and set the tone for things to come.
The Wizards won their first playoff victory in 17 years Saturday, beating the Chicago Bulls, 117-99, with a big-man attack notably absent in the first two games of the series.
Thomas scored 20 points on 8-for-9 shooting, grabbed nine rebounds and led a third-quarter spurt that put his team in control, supplementing an attack that had come to rely too heavily on Hughes, Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison.
"He was the X-factor," Chicago guard Ben Gordon said. "He came in for them today and had an uncharacteristic game. Usually you see Arenas, Jamison or Hughes doing something, but he was big."
The win was the first in the postseason for the Wizards since May 8, 1988, when they beat Detroit, 106-103, in Game Four of a first-round series. Of immediate concern for the Wizards is that they cut the Bulls' series lead to 2-1, with Game Four in Washington on Monday.
"We were very desperate," said Brendan Haywood, who added eight points and nine rebounds. "It's not impossible to come back from 0-3, but it's definitely very hard. We would have had to pull out our Boston Red Sox tapes."
The Bulls had taken a 2-0 series lead with their own X-factors -- Gordon and Andres Nocioni seemed unstoppable in Game One, and Kirk Hinrich made nearly everything he shot in Game Two -- but the over-the-top hero this time was a Wizards player known as much for his long dreadlocks and his book of poems called "More Than an Athlete."
Thomas took only five shots and scored nine points in the first two games of the series combined, and his performance Saturday nearly tripled his 7.1-point regular season average. He signed a six-year, $36.6 million contract last summer but missed the first 32 games of the season with an abdominal injury.
"We have a special group in the Big Three, and I'm in the supporting cast," Thomas said. "Tonight, they needed me. I had to be ready just to finish. . . . We can't rely on them totally for everything."
The Big Three played their parts, but the trio gained inspiration from unsung front court players Thomas, Haywood and Michael Ruffin, who had a season-high nine points. Arenas finished with 32 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Hughes had 21 points and seven rebounds, and Jamison had 21 points and eight rebounds.
Tyson Chandler had 15 points and 10 rebounds to lead six players in double figures for the Bulls, who struggled with foul trouble in a closely called, rhythm-less game that included 67 combined fouls and 83 free throws. In addition, Gordon asked to leave the game at one point because he was hampered by a virus that caused him to miss practice Friday, and Nocioni was rocked momentarily after taking a shot to the groin in a collision with Hughes in the third quarter.
TERRY TO THE RESCUE
HOUSTON -- With Dirk Nowitzki in another slump and Houston's Tracy McGrady scoring virtually at will, unheralded Dallas point guard Jason Terry rescued the Mavericks.
Terry scored a season-high 32 points, including a three-pointer with 26.9 seconds left, and Michael Finley added 18 to rally the Mavericks from a seven-point, fourth-quarter deficit for a 97-93 victory over the Houston Rockets.
"I wouldn't consider 'Jet' (Terry) a classic point guard," said Mavericks coach Avery Johnson, who was exactly that during his 16-year NBA career. "But he gets the job done."
The victory evened the best-of-seven, first-round series at two games apiece, with the road team winning all four games. Game Five is Monday night in Dallas.
Nowitzki finished with 18 points on 4-for-14 shooting.
McGrady led Houston with 36 points and Yao Ming added 20.
"It's very disappointing, the way we finished these last two games," said Rockets guard David Wesley, whose team won the first two games in Dallas. "It's two blown opportunities."
HEAT, SUNS GO FOR SWEEPS
The Phoenix Suns (62-20) and Miami Heat (59-23), who compiled the top records in the league during the regular season, will look to sweep away their first-round playoff opponents with road victories today.
The Suns are in Memphis to face the Grizzlies (8 p.m., TNT), who are in a 3-0 hole.
"Everybody understands what we have to get done here. Nothing matters beyond winning one game. You can't get to anything else unless you win one game," Memphis coach Mike Fratello said. "That's what we should all be focused on."
Miami faces the New Jersey Nets at Continental Airlines Arena (3:30 p.m., Ch. 7) after having escaped, 108-105, in double overtime Friday to establish a 3-0 advantage.
"Regardless of what everyone says and regardless of how the situation looks, we never give up," Nets forward Richard Jefferson said.
Elsewhere, the Philadelphia 76ers look to even their series against the defending champion Detroit Pistons in Game Four today (1 p.m., ESPN) in the Wachovia Center.
Seattle leads Sacramento, 2-1, but the Kings will be looking for a second straight home win at Arco Arena tonight (10:30 p.m., TNT). The Kings defeated the SuperSonics, 116-104, on Friday.