Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman was asked after Saturday’s practice what adjustments would need to be made for Sunday’s critical Game 4 should Nene be suspended for his altercation with Chicago’s Jimmy Butler.
“I’m not talking about anything hypothetical . . . until [a decision] comes down,” Wittman said.
About an hour later, after all of the Wizards players and coaches had cleared out of the Verizon Center, the ruling came down: The NBA suspended Nene for Game 4 for “head-butting” and “attempting to throw down” Butler during Friday’s fourth-quarter scuffle.
With the Wizards clinging to a 2-1 series lead and already searching for answers following Friday’s 100-97 defeat, the loss of their third-leading scorer and rebounder couldn’t come at a worse time. But the notion of having to strategize and play without Nene is not such a stretch for Wittman and the Wizards.
Just three weeks have passed since Nene returned to Washington’s lineup after missing 21 games with a sprained knee ligament. Washington went 13-9 during that span, with fourth-year forward Trevor Booker and free agent signee Drew Gooden stepping in as capable fill-ins and creating more depth in the Wizards’ rotation.
But in the final game of Nene’s absence, Washington’s vulnerabilities without their floor-stretching, physically imposing forward were exposed in a 96-78 home loss to Chicago on April 5, a defeat that some players labeled as the worst of the season.
“We’ve played a lot of games without him this year,” said Bradley Beal, who scored a team-high 25 points in Friday’s loss. “That just means other guys got to step up. We’ve got [Booker], Drew and Kevin [Seraphin] and the rest of these other bigs, and we just need them all to come in and fulfill their role. I definitely think they’ll be more than capable if Nene can’t play.”
Although Nene wasn’t ejected until 8 minutes 28 seconds remained in the fourth quarter, Friday brought a taste of what life could be like without the 13th-year forward knocking down midrange jumpers and impacting both ends of the floor. Though a determined Nene got the ball on 30.9 percent of Washington’s possessions, he made just five of his 15 attempts, turned the ball over five times and appeared both agitated and flustered by the physical play of Chicago’s Joakim Noah.
After going a combined 19 for 30 in the first two games, Nene’s lack of offensive success and subsequent inability to create open space for his teammates stalled Washington’s normally up-tempo attack at times. Up nine in the third quarter, the Wizards went nearly four minutes without a field goal, allowing Chicago to make its move behind the hot-shooting Mike Dunleavy (career-high 35 points and eight three-pointers).
“We’ve got to come back to the style we had in the first two games, we have to be physical and we got to run,” said Wizards center Marcin Gortat, whose offensive role will increase in Nene’s absence. “We’ve got to make sure we contain them off the dribble. They drive into the paint too often.”
The Wizards did see some improvement in the defeat. For the first time this series, Washington outscored the Bulls in the paint, 50-34, won the turnover battle, 11-16, and pulled down 13 offensive rebounds to Chicago’s seven. Building a similar advantage on Sunday will be tougher without Nene, who has played a key role in a late-season surge that has people near and far jumping on the Wizards’ bandwagon. But the playoff intensity elevated by Friday’s ejection as well as the heightened stakes surrounding Game 4 are factors that the Wizards look to embrace.
“I don’t want our guys stepping back at all from a physicality standpoint. Not at all,” Wittman said. “They made more plays down the stretch than we did [Friday]. That’s the way these games are going to be. We didn’t say it was going to be easy. That’s what our mind-set needs to be. Give and take, you win a couple and the other team comes back and now we’ve got to respond.”