Losing Nene to a suspension in Game 4 certainly changes the complexion of the Wizards’ first-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls but Washington can actually take some solace in the NBA’s ruling because the outcome could’ve been worse. Video replays showed Marcin Gortat leaving the bench and stepping on the court when the scuffle broke out between Nene and Bulls forward Jimmy Butler.
NBA rules stipulate that any player who leaves the bench during an altercation is subject to an automatic one-game suspension. Coach Randy Wittman didn’t expect Gortat to receive any punishment because Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau had already called timeout before Nene butted heads with Butler and wrapped his hands around the back of Butler’s neck in an ugly dust-up with 8 minutes 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ 100-97 loss.
Wittman proved to be correct, but Gortat admitted that he was somewhat worried about getting a call from the league although he was simply carrying out his usual routine after a timeout.
“I’m always one of the first guys jumping onto the court, trying to give a high-five to players and when I seen the fight was going on, I just froze,” Gortat said. “I was right there on the middle of the court. Just because I was there, I could’ve put myself and my team in trouble.”
The Wizards will be without Nene on Sunday for a critical game they’ll need to win to maintain home-court advantage in this series. But they are more confident about their chances after going 13-9 in games Nene missed after he sprained his left knee on Feb. 23. They are 0-1 without both Nene and Gortat this season.
Chicago took advantage of Nene’s absence to beat the Wizards last Friday and ransacked Verizon Center during a 96-78 victory on April 5.
“I just have to step up more and see how it goes,” said Trevor Booker, who will start in place of Nene. “We know how to play without him. He’s a big piece, but we played a couple games without him.”
Nene certainly made a difference in the first two games of the series, scoring a combined 41 points on 63.3 percent shooting. But he had a rough night even before his ejection, missing 10 of 15 shots from the floor.
Throughout the first three games, the Wizards’ best lineup has actually featured John Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Gortat and…Booker. That five-man unit has shared the floor for just 13 minutes but has outscored the Bulls, 38-19, and shot 53.8 percent from the field.
Washington’s starting unit of Wall, Beal, Ariza, Gortat and Nene has played 58 minutes in the series but has been outscored, 118-111. Nene is also not among the six players to have a positive plus-minus in this series. Ariza (plus-33), Wall (plus-22), Gortat (plus-11), Gooden (plus-9), Beal (plus-6) and Booker (plus-4) make up that list.
Subbed out midway in the second quarter, Nene returns with the second unit, which hasn’t been as effective collectively in the postseason. Nene’s plus-minus is a negative-five. Make no mistake, the Wizards would prefer to have Nene bullying the Bulls with his low-post game and step-back jumper than the alternative.
“It’s going to be a huge loss for us,” said Gortat, who is averaging 11.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in the series and recorded two double-doubles. “Inside offense is going to go through me. There is an opportunity for me to play a bigger role. I just got to perform. I got to be on top of my game.”
Gortat averaged 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds during a 20-game stretch without Nene from late February to early April.
Booker started 45 games this season, averaging eight points on 55.7 percent shooting and grabbing 6.2 rebounds. In his last start of the regular season, Booker scored 20 points to help the Wizards defeat the Boston Celtics, 118-102.
Gooden will also get more minutes after essentially sliding out of the rotation when Nene returned. Signed as Nene insurance in late February, Gooden averaged 9.8 points in 19.9 minutes from March 5 through April 9. Since then, Gooden has only played more than six minutes one time. He had four points and three rebounds in 17 minutes against Milwaukee on April 12 – when Nene rested on the second end of back-to-back games.
In 10 minutes against Chicago this series, Gooden has grabbed one rebound and committed three fouls.
Gortat offered a shrug when asked his opinion about Nene’s exchange with Butler. “Different guy see things different way. Nene react the way he reacted,” he said. “He’s a guy, just like every one of us, with a big ego. Nobody in the locker room is going to be pushed around like that. Things went a little too hot. Did he deserve two technical fouls? I don’t know. End of the day, he got kicked out and we had to play without him. We will adjust and we got another game. We got to forget about that.”
Booker was the closest Wizard to the confrontation and stepped in to serve as peacemaker, but he was a tad too late, since Nene was already engaged. “I didn’t know how far it would go,” Booker said. “Unfortunately, it went too far where he got ejected.”
Thibodeau’s timeout spared the Wizards of any further discipline from the league with regards to Gortat. “It’s not like I was running and yelling and screaming. I was just standing there and had no idea what was going on. At some point actually I realized I was on the court, I started taking steps back because I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.’ So I started walking back. I was just shocked what was going on on the court at that time.”