Dormant for nearly six years, silent for most of the season, and waiting patiently — and at times, angrily — for a team to get behind, Washington Wizards fans arrived at Verizon Center on Friday night in anticipation of a show. Playoff basketball hadn’t been played in this building since LeBron James crushed the last first-round flameout of the Gilbert Arenas-Antawn Jamison-Caron Butler era, and the lean years in between set the stage for what unfolded as a sellout crowd, separated only by red, white and blue T-shirts, came prepared to wear out their lungs.
The noise was at times deafening, the enthusiasm lasting until the closing seconds as more than 20,000 fans witnessed a thrilling, physical battle that was highlighted by Nene’s ejection after an MMA-level exchange with Bulls guard Jimmy Butler. But with Nene sent to the showers early, the Wizards were unable to reward the dedication of the fans with a win.
Desperate not to go down three games to none, the gritty Chicago Bulls, a heavy favorite in this series before losing the first two games at home, played a game more suited to their preferred style and pulled out a 100-97 win.
“This was everything that my teammates and I have been waiting for. Especially me for four years,” John Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 said after his first home playoff game. “The sad part is that we didn’t get the win.”
The Wizards still have a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Game 4 Sunday, but they lost their edge just as they lost their best big man in the fourth quarter. Nene’s status for the next game remains in question after an ugly, heated exchange in which the Brazilian forward locked heads with Butler, grabbed him by the back of the neck with both hands and appeared to swing as he was being pulled away. Nene was tossed, but Butler (15 points) stuck around and later buried a go-ahead three-pointer to give the Bulls a 94-91 lead they never relinquished.
“When you play physical both ways, things get hot. It’s over,” Nene said. “Not only me, but the whole team, we’re thinking about Game 4 and stepping up for real in a big series. Things don’t go fair for both sides, you need to move on.”
When asked if he thought he would be available for Game 4, Nene replied, “I don’t know, you know the rule.”
Marcin Gortat (13 points, 11 rebounds) stepped on the floor and appeared to head toward the altercation before heading back to the bench. Players are given an automatic ejection for leaving the bench, but Coach Tom Thibodeau called a timeout, which makes the situation a tad cloudy.
Bradley Beal scored a team-high 25 points and Wall had 23 with seven assists, but he missed two crucial free throws before Butler’s three-pointer. Five Wizards scored in double figures, but they were held below triple digits for the first time this series.
Chicago was the lowest-scoring team in the NBA this season but it was able to continue the trends of the road team winning each game behind an otherworldly shooting performance from Mike Dunleavy, who scored a playoff career-high 35 points and matched the Wizards’ total of eight three-pointers on just 10 attempts. Limited to just 20 points combined in the first two games, Dunleavy couldn’t be contained and had the Wizards running through punishing screens and coming up a step too late most times.
“That man was hot. He was in the zone. The hoop looked like an ocean to him,” Beal said of Dunleavy.
Dunleavy’s former college teammate at Duke, Carlos Boozer, filled the other offensive lulls with 14 points, and Bulls reserves Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin both scored 13 points. Joakim Noah only scored six points but was effective in being a menace for Nene.
As he walked down the hallway after the game, Noah mocked Nene by stating, “Looks like you’re going to lose Nene for a game. What a bummer.”
Nene had a frustrating night, with Noah, the defensive player of the year, refusing to let the Wizards’ big man get the best of him for the third straight game. Noah wrapped him up, slammed down on him and used every trick he could to bump Nene out of position and make him work inside.
After going several trips without collecting a foul, Nene angrily glared at the officials. Before getting tossed, Nene scored 10 points, on just 5-of-15 shooting, and grabbed four rebounds. He brought the Wizards within 78-76 early in the fourth quarter when he hit a jumper and caught a pass from Andre Miller for an acrobatic layup. But as he ran down the floor, Nene bumped into Butler, who thought the contact was excessive.
Butler shoved Nene on the hip, and Nene turned and angrily approached him. Eventually, the two players pressed their foreheads against each other and got into a staredown. Tired of the dance, Nene grabbed Butler by the neck and pulled him away before being separated.
As the referees huddled, Nene calmly sipped from his Gatorade and got ready to re-enter the game before he was informed he was being assessed two technical fouls, which meant an automatic ejection.
“We had scuffles all three games, basically,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “We have to make sure we don’t lose our composure where we get thrown out of a game like that. It doesn’t matter who, we just can’t afford that. It makes it tough on us. You have to be able to maintain, so don’t lose your cool. You have to learn from this.”
Butler was given a technical foul but remained in the game, knocking down a three-pointer in front of the Wizards’ bench to put his team up, 81-76. Augustin extended the lead to seven with a driving layup, but Beal — who scored 13 points in the fourth quarter — led the charge back and gave Washington an 88-86 lead with less than four minutes to play. Dunleavy answered with a three-pointer, and Beal came right back with a three-pointer of his own to give the Wizards a 91-89 lead. With the game tied at 91 with 1 minute 27 seconds remaining, Wall missed two free throws, and the Bulls responded with a three-pointer from Butler.
“My teammates told me to keep my head up, that’s not the reason we lost the game,” Wall said of his missed free throws. “But in my opinion, that is the reason we lost.”
The Wizards finished tied with the best road record in the Eastern Conference with 22 wins, but they also had the worst home record of the 16 playoff teams, which meant that nothing was given with the series shifting to Washington. Wall and his teammates all said the right things about not getting caught up in having a series lead because they only won two games. They still have to win two more games to advance.