When Trevor Ariza threw down a two-handed jam and it was clear the Washington Wizards were going to defeat the Chicago Bulls to take a commanding three-games-to-one lead in their best-of-seven, first-round series, pandemonium ensued at Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, an Eastern Conference playoff basketball game had morphed into a combination of a rock concert and playful protest movement.
With Nene suspended by the NBA for one game after an altercation two nights earlier, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis made sure the Brazilian big man’s presence was at least felt near the bench as he arrived at the arena wearing his No. 42 jersey. As the final seconds of a 98-89 victory began to tick off, Leonsis saw himself on the arena’s Jumbotron, raised his hands and pointed both thumbs to the name on the back of his jersey. Fans responded in kind, closing out the game by chanting, “Free Ne-ne! Free Ne-ne!”
“I thought it was pretty hilarious that Ted had Nene’s jersey,” Bradley Beal said. “It kind of threw me off for a minute.”
Being without their emotional, dread-locked forward didn’t throw off the Wizards one bit as they gave their most passionate performance of the postseason, scoring the first 14 points of the game and never looking back. Ariza scored a game-high 30 points and matched Gilbert Arenas’s franchise record for three-pointers in a game with six. After the Bulls had cut a 20-point deficit in half, the usually reserved Ariza let loose after he took a pass from Marcin Gortat and threw down a two-handed dunk to give the Wizards a 95-83 lead. Ariza screamed, shouted and pumped his arms all the way up the court.
Beal scored 18 points, Gortat had 17 and John Wall had 15 points and 10 assists to put the Wizards one win away from claiming their first playoff series win since 2005 — and only the third since the team made its last trip to the NBA Finals in 1979. They will have a chance to close out the Bulls in Game 5 on Tuesday at United Center. The Wizards are 5-0 when leading 3-1 in a playoff series.
“It’s an old saying: ‘Once satisfied, all forward progress ceases.’ So we don’t want to come in here satisfied with just three wins. We want to go in there and go for the jugular,” backup Drew Gooden said.
The Bulls successfully baited Nene into losing his composure in the fourth quarter of Game 3, when he head-butted Chicago’s Jimmy Butler and wrapped his hands around his neck, leading to an automatic ejection. Nene had dominated the Bulls in the first two games at United Center, winning his head-to-head matchup with NBA defensive player of the year Joakim Noah.
Chicago liked its chances of returning for Tuesday's game tied at two games. After Friday’s game, Noah walked down the hallway and mocked Nene’s possible suspension by jokingly stating it stunk for Wizards fans.
The Wizards, however, were confident they could send Noah back to Chicago on the brink of elimination. With Trevor Booker filling in as the starter, the Wizards had gone 13-9 late in the season when Nene sat out with a sprained left knee, meeting Leonsis’s comments that the team had “no excuses” on its quest toward the first playoff appearance since 2008.
“I think it was more a blessing in disguise, maybe,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Nene’s absence. “Our guys played well while he was gone and got us into a position to get into the playoffs. It was more, ‘You know what? We know what to do.’ We’ve put ourselves in position to do something, but we have yet to do anything.”
The first four minutes of Game 4 showed success with no Nene was no fluke. Ariza hit a three-pointer to give the Wizards a 7-0 lead, and Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau called a 20-second timeout. It did nothing to help the Bulls make shots as the Wizards continued to apply defensive pressure and forced Thibodeau into calling another timeout after Ariza hit his second three-pointer of the game. Ariza’s third three-pointer pushed the lead to 15, and the celebration had already begun among the red towel-waving fans.
Taj Gibson (32 points) helped the Bulls avoid getting completely obliterated by playing a flawless first half, scrapping for offensive rebounds, drawing fouls and attacking the rim for dunks and layups. He made all eight of his shots and accounted for half of the Bulls’ 40 points in the half, helping them hang around a game that would’ve otherwise been a blowout.
After a Bulls tip-in and dunk to close within 52-40, Ariza sent the crowd at halftime into a tizzy. Beal drove into the lane and found the wiry swingman in the right corner, where he hit his fifth three-pointer as time expired.
“I got a lot of open looks, normally those touches go to Nene early in the game, but we needed somebody to step up. I think we’re a smart enough group to understand that when one of your pieces go down, you have to find ways and will to win,” Ariza said. “We were locked in early. We were pretty disappointed in the way we lost Game 3. With that being said, we had come out here and take care of business, and that’s what we did.”
The series remained physical and heated, but the Wizards learned from Nene’s mental lapse and resisted losing their composure. Bulls forward Carlos Boozer collected a flagrant foul when he chopped down on Gortat late in the third period. Gortat approached Boozer but quickly backed off and quietly went to the free throw line. Booker collected a technical foul while jawing with Gibson but saved his most callous words while sitting several feet away from his counterpart on the bench.
“Just a little trash talk. I’m not out there to make friends, so we got into it a little bit,” Booker said after finishing with eight points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots.
Mike Dunleavy, who scored a playoff-career-high 35 points in Chicago’s Game 3 win, was held to six points and injured his left thumb in the fourth quarter. Dunleavy said he jammed the thumb on his non-shooting hand and was getting an X-ray but that he planned to play in Game 5.
More Wizards and NBA coverage:
Box score: Wizards 98, Bulls 89
Photo gallery: Scenes from Verizon Center