WASHINGTON – An already rough-and-tumble playoff series between the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls now has a full-blown fracas, an ejection and a Game 4 suspension for Nene.
What everyone will be watching when these clubs meet Sunday, with Washington leading the Eastern Conference series 2-1, is just how physical the play will get – and whether things will escalate again.
"There's a lot of pushing and shoving and talking," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said Saturday, before the NBA announced Nene would sit out Game 4. "We just have to be sure we're keeping our composure in that area. I don't want them stepping back at all from a physicality standpoint. Not at all. It just reaches that line, and we've got to know where that line is."
Nene was tossed with about 8½ minutes left in the fourth quarter of the Bulls' Game 3 victory Friday night after wrapping both hands around the back of Jimmy Butler's head and neck as they stood so close their foreheads touched. Rod Thorn, the NBA's president of basketball operations, announced Saturday that Nene would miss one game without pay for head-butting and grabbing Butler "and attempting to throw him down."
"When you play physical ... things get hot," Nene said with a smile and a shrug Friday.
He did not speak to reporters Saturday.
Trevor Booker is expected to start at forward in Nene's place Sunday. Booker is averaging 4.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in 23.3 minutes in the playoffs. He averaged 6.8 points and 5.3 rebounds during the regular season.
"Just like each one of us, he's a guy with a big ego," Wizards center Marcin Gortat said about Nene. "There's nobody in this locker room who's going to be pushed around like that. And that's just how he reacted. Does he deserve two technical fouls? I don't know. But at the end of the day, he got kicked out and we had to play without him."
Added Washington guard Bradley Beal: "It gets to the point where you just get pushed to the limit way too much, and I think Nene got pushed to the limit. Do we agree with what he did? Not necessarily, but he did it and we can't take it back."
Butler made two key 3-pointers after his scuffle with Nene, helping the fourth-seeded Bulls win 100-97.
The visiting team has won all three games of the series. The other pattern that's been established, as Bulls center Joakim Noah noted: "They have a lot of physical players. We try to play a physical game."
During Washington's victory at the United Center in Game 2, some lesser contretemps led to a total of four players getting called for technical fouls: Washington's Beal and Trevor Ariza, and the Bulls' Noah and Kirk Hinrich.
"This is the playoffs. It's all normal stuff," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
And so, really, neither club seemed all that surprised at the rising temperature in Game 3.
Noah, who has spent plenty of time jostling with Nene in the low block, called the ejection a "turning point" Friday.
Indeed, not only did Nene average a team-high 20.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in Washington's road wins in Games 1 and 2, but the team's entire approach changes when the 6-foot-11 Brazilian is on the floor.
He provides big-body defense and soft-hands passing. He can score and rebound. He's so influential that John Wall, Washington's All-Star point guard, has called him the "X-factor."
During the regular season, Washington won two of three games against the Bulls, but lost to the visiting Bulls, 96-78, on April 5 without an injured Nene.
Asked whether he thought Nene's actions in Game 3 warranted a suspension, Noah said, "As a player, those aren't things I can control. The only thing I can control right now is eating lunch and ice baths and sleeping and shooting free throws and things like that."