WASHINGTON -- An already rough-and-tumble playoff series between the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls now has a full-blown fracas, an ejection and a Game 4 suspension for Nene.
What everyone will be watching when these clubs meet Sunday, with Washington leading the Eastern Conference series 2-1, is just how physical the play will get -- and whether things will escalate again.
"We've had scuffles all three games, basically. You've got to make sure we don't lose our composure, where we get thrown out of the game like that. It doesn't matter who it is, we can't afford that," Washington coach Randy Wittman said after the Wizards' loss Friday night. "So we've just got to do a better job. Hey, it's very emotional. Emotional game, tough game."
Nene was tossed with about 8 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter after wrapping both hands around the back of Jimmy Butler's head and neck as they stood so close their foreheads touched. Rod Thorn, the NBA's president of basketball operations, announced Saturday that Nene had been suspended one game without pay for head-butting and grabbing Butler "around the neck with both hands and attempting to throw him down."
Butler made two key 3-pointers from there, helping the fourth-seeded Bulls win 100-97.
"When you play physical ... things get hot," Nene said with a smile and a shrug Friday.
During Washington's victory at Chicago in Game 2, some lesser contretemps led to a total of four players getting called for technical fouls: Washington's Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza, and Chicago's Kirk Hinrich and Joakim Noah.
So neither club seemed all that surprised at the rising temperature in Game 3.
"He's a guy, just like each one of us, he's a guy with a big ego," Wizards centre Marcin Gortat said about Nene. "There's nobody in this locker room who's going to be pushed around like that. And that's just how he reacted. Does he deserve two technical fouls? I don't know. But at the end of the day, he got kicked out and we had to play without him."
Added Beal: "It gets to the point where you just get pushed to the limit way too much, and I think Nene got pushed to the limit. Do we agree with what he did? Not necessarily, but he did it and we can't take it back."
Noah, who has spent plenty of time jostling with Nene in the low block, called the ejection a "turning point" of Friday's game.
Indeed, not only did Nene average a team-high 20.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in Washington's wins in Games 1 and 2, but the team's entire approach changes when the 6-foot-11 Brazilian is on the floor.
He provides big-body defence and soft-hands passing. He can score and rebound. He's so influential that John Wall, Washington's All-Star point guard, has called him the "X-factor."
During the regular season, Washington won two of three games from Chicago, but lost at home 96-78 on April 5 without an injured Nene. The Wizards scored 26 points in the first half.
As for what Game 4 would mean without Nene, Noah said Saturday before the official announcement, "I'm not sure. I don't think it changes our mindset, though. It's a crucial game for us. All three games really came down to the end. Attention to detail is huge. The game in these situations is so mental. For us, it's just about staying focused on the things that we can control."
Asked whether he thought Nene's actions warranted a suspension, Noah said, "As a player, those aren't things I can control. The only thing I can control right now is eating lunch and ice baths and sleeping and shooting free throws and things like that."
All three games so far have been won by the visiting team, a pattern the Bulls would love to see continue Sunday, of course.
"I can't tell you why that's happened," Wizards forward Trevor Ariza said.
While Washington's offence is particularly dependent on young guards Wall and Beal, the Bulls found some new sources of much-needed offence in Game 3: Mike Dunleavy scored 35 points, one shy of his NBA high, and Butler finished with 15, including a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 24 seconds to go.
Wittman will want to come up with a way to change that Sunday, of course.
What is not likely to change is the testy nature of this matchup.
"It gets chippy," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "But you've got to be smart. It's playoff basketball. You can get ejected; you can get suspended. You've got to keep your hands to yourself."