Faced with a virtually insurmountable 3-0 deficit against the Washington Wizards, the Chicago Bulls epitomized resilience in their Game 3, 100-97 victory on Friday night. These were the Bulls we've come to know—determined and gutsy.
They also finally got some much-needed scoring help, this time from swingmen Mike Dunleavy and Jimmy Butler.
But the turning point Friday night might not have really been about the Bulls. It may have had more to do with Nene's decision to engage Butler in a head-butting match during the fourth quarter. With his head pressed against Butler's, Nene proceeded to grab his neck aggressively.
Wizards center Marcin Gortat may have left the bench during the scuffle, fueling speculation that he too could be suspended for Game 4.
When you're finished shaking your head, consider the implications.
In other words, the Nene incident may have not only determined Game 3—it may have severe implications for Game 4 as well.
Let's start with how Nene's absence impacted Friday night's action. The altercation and ejection occurred with 8:28 remaining in the game, when Chicago led by just a 78-76 margin.
Up to that point, Nene had struggled shooting the ball—just 5-of-15 from the field. But he's been a pivotal contributor all series long, taking over during the overtime of Game 2. More importantly, even when Nene isn't hitting, the Wizards like to run their offense through him when the game slows down.
He gives Washington a viable option in the post who can either look for his own shot or pass. Nene had three assists in 29 minutes in Game 3. In Games 1 and 2, he had a combined 41 points and six assists. Though much of the attention has understandably gone to young guards John Wall and Bradley Beal, Nene has been indispensable to the offense.
To be fair, it's not as though Nene was about to take Game 3 over. Wall and Beal were the big contributors again—Nene was having a relatively off night.
But this was a close game. Both teams scored 28 points in the fourth. Washington was forced to resort to little-used backup Drew Gooden to play five minutes. There's no question that Nene could have been a difference-maker down the stretch, perhaps even on the defensive end where he had two steals and had frustrated Joakim Noah into a 2-of-4 night from the field.
The bigger concern will be what becomes of Game 4. Joakim Noah didn't exactly offer words of sympathy.
On the whole, Washington has been much better with Nene in the lineup. During the regular season he averaged 14.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. His prowess in the low and high post has made him a valuable contributor to the offense, especially when the ball isn't in Wall's hands.
His size and quick hands also make him a solid (though not phenomenal) defender.
Perhaps most importantly, he gives a very young team experience and leadership—or so we thought, anyway. The idea was supposed to be for guys like Nene, Trevor Ariza and Andre Miller to bring a veteran presence to this locker room.
The last thing you'd expect is a distraction of this order. Nene's lack of composure wasn't the kind of leadership anyone in this organization envisioned.
If Gortat left the bench, he could be out for Game 4, too. That would leave the Wizards playing with some combination of Gooden and Trevor Booker in the paint—a significant downgrade from the normal starting lineup.
Gortat averaged 13.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game this season. He's also Washington's best interior defender with 1.5 blocks per contest. And like Nene, he's skilled in both post areas, capable of making shots and making plays.
The question is whether Chicago will be able to take advantage of it.
The Bulls now have some momentum to be sure. What was on the verge of becoming an overwhelming task is now within reach. In all likelihood, head coach Tom Thibodeau's feisty roster will come out with loads of energy on Sunday. They're finally smelling some blood.
On the other hand, Chicago barely won this game, and it took 35 points from Dunleavy. You don't have to be a pessimist to surmise that he probably won't be going off like that again anytime soon. It is, however, encouraging that the sharpshooter decided to start letting it fly.
The Bulls are in desperate need of offense, and they're in no position to be picky about where it comes from. Dunleavy might typically register as a reliable role player and little more, but Chicago could use a couple more solid performances from him—even if they fall short of Friday night's masterpiece.
Chicago also isn't getting much out of Jimmy Butler. He finally saw some daylight in the fourth quarter of Game 3, nailing two pivotal threes late in the contest.
Butler hasn't scored more than 15 points in the series, and he had just six in Game 2.
The team is relying heavily on bench players like D.J. Augustin and Taj Gibson, hoping that a balanced, ensemble approach will make up for the lack of a dynamic scorer. As a result, though, Chicago hasn't been able to build substantial leads and has struggled to put up points down the stretch.
Accordingly, it's hard to say just how much Nene or Gortat's absence would affect Game 4. Yes, it would make Washington's job harder. But the onus will remain on Chicago one way or the other.
In the worst- (or best-) case scenario that both Nene and Gortat are suspended, the Bulls still don't have many slashers on the roster capable of getting to the rim and making Washington pay for its lack of protection. Nor does Chicago have a dominant post presence, especially with Thibodeau's reluctance to play Carlos Boozer in the fourth quarter.
In other words, it's entirely possible that the Bulls will fail to capitalize upon what may be a golden opportunity. Their offensive problems are systemic in nature, and their defense hasn't been as intimidating as it was throughout the regular season (for whatever reason).
Even in Friday night's win, Chicago still gave up 97 points. Thibodeau's troops have yet to shut Washington down. They've yet to force the kind of grind-it-out tempo that's historically put them in position to win.
And for all the momentum the Bulls may have coming into Game 4, it comes with caveats.
Game 3 was tied with 30 seconds remaining. The Bulls don't win without what was virtually a career night for Dunleavy, whose regular-season career high is 36. They don't win without Butler coming out of nowhere to make a clutch impact.
And they very well might not win without Nene getting ejected.
Opinions about whether he should be suspended for another game will be mixed. The league goes to great lengths to deter behavior that's detrimental to the integrity and brand of the game. But it also doesn't want heat-of-the-moment, in-game mistakes to determine the outcome of a series. There are plenty of good arguments on both sides.
Arguments won't matter on Sunday, though. The Bulls have their work cut out for them regardless of Nene and Gortat's status. Their backs are still very much up against the wall, but Nene's Game 3 antics could provide all the hope they need.