Going on midnight Friday, Joakim Noah, America’s most ornery, nails-on-a-chalkboard player, rubbed salt on the wound.
“Looks like you’re going to lose Nene for a game,” the Chicago Bulls center said to no one in particular as he shuffled down the hall outside the Verizon Center press room. Almost cackling, he added, “What a bummer. [Stinks] for you guys.”
A few steps later, he mouthed, “ ’Roid rage.”
Now, I can’t be certain he was talking about his counterpart in the post in this series, Nene, that beefcake of a Brazilian center who was ejected from Game 3 of a first-round NBA playoff series that suddenly has all of Washington mightily concerned.
Either way, the Bulls showed off their enduring survivalist skills, which include getting into their opponents’ heads, crawling beneath six layers of flesh and making their opponents not want to beat them as much as disembowel Noah, Carlos Boozer, Kirk Hinrich and even cute, little Jimmy Butler, whose neck Nene cupped as if he wanted to grapple to the death.
The two players went literally nose-to-nose after a Nene layup in the fourth quarter and a quick altercation afterward flared into a series-defining moment.
Nene not only grabbed Butler, he threw what appeared to be a feint with a closed fist, was tossed from the game, and now is looking at a one-game suspension from the league’s lord of discipline, Rod Thorn.
This is really bad news for the Wizards, who won Games 1 and 2 because Nene treated Noah and Boozer as if they were inanimate objects in the way of his pretty jump shots and power drives to the rim.
Worse, they gave up 100 points to the Bulls, which is like giving up 200 to the Golden State Warriors. The Bulls don’t do offense. They usually maul you into some kind of unsightly 85-80 submission, after which you need globs of heat rub and an orthopedist.
When they beat you up, score and toy with your psyche, well, they win.
Game 4 happens in less than 36 hours, Sunday at 1 p.m. If the Wizards can’t find a way to keep their poise and play defense enough to keep Mike Dunleavy from scoring 35 points — Mike Dunleavy! — and lighting them up like he is Reggie Miller or Jeff Hornacek, they will go back to Chicago in a best-of-three battle against a team they had no business letting back into a series all but won Friday night.
Make no mistake; they had this game. Recovering from their third sizable, second-half deficit, John Wall helped erase almost all of a seven-point Chicago lead in the final six minutes by stepping in front of a Dunleavy pass, going the distance, scoring, drawing the foul and converting a three-point play to draw Washington within one.
Then Bradley Beal did what he did in Game 2; he hit so many monster jump shots when he needed to most, sending the Wizards ahead several times in the final three minutes.
You could tell Wall wanted it bad, this being his first home playoff game in four years and the loud mob at Verizon’s first home playoff game in six long years.
In fact, Wall wanted it too much. He missed two critical free throws with 1 minute 27 seconds left and the game tied. He and Beal combined for 48 points and had some scintillating moments, but in the end the story became Nene’s ejection and potential suspension and the Bulls’ resolve, especially after Butler dropped in a three-pointer in the final minute.
“You can’t control when you play physical, things get hot,” Nene said afterward. “It’s over. . . . You need to move [on], that’s what I’m doing.”
In the most inaccurate statement ever uttered by a man thrown out of a game for escalating a physical confrontation, Nene added, “We maintained our composure.”
No he didn’t.
Nene didn’t stick around to hear what Noah said. By then, the league office was presumably reviewing replays of the altercation and deciding what to do. The guess here is he probably gets suspended for one game, one game the Wizards cannot afford to give away after the drama of Friday night.
He’s going to keep talking, keep needling, keep driving his foes mad with his forearms, his uncanny ability to slide and shuffle as if he’s 5 feet 11.
That’s what you do when you can’t win by outscoring anyone 115-110. You muck it up. You talk smack and dole out physical punishment.
And if the Wizards fall for it and take the bait one more time in this series, they can about kiss their playoff dreams goodbye. The Bulls devour beautiful basketball teams. Mentally tough ones? Not so much.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.