Previous ArticlesBulls hoping to prove resilient once again
Nene with a no no and Bulls back in series
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 26
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
Joakim Noah was, as usual, the last one to leave the Bulls locker room after Friday’s breathless 100-97 victory over the Washington Wizards. It had been both an emotional and pivotal day, Noah earlier at shootaround involved in an expletive-filled dispute with an antagonistic Wizards’ employee and then fouling out late in the game. But as Noah scrubbed out his long hair and pulled on a shirt, he summed up the week.
“Back in the series, baby!” Noah exclaimed to no one in particular.
But it may be the shout that stunned Washington as the Wizards’ youth and zeal may be their undoing even after they won the first two games of the series in the United Center.
Mike Dunleavy, with a career playoff high of 35 points, more than doubling his previous best, 11 more than his season high and just one short of his career most, and with a team record eight three-pointers, saved the Bulls season. No NBA team has ever won a playoff series after losing the first three games.
“I feel like I have been shooting the ball well,” said Dunleavy, who averaged 10 points the first two games and had just six shots, making four, in Game 2. “I just have not had a ton of looks. Coach mentioned some stuff yesterday about trying to get me some more catch and shoot situations and we did that. Got a couple easy layups early on and got going. Just had one of those nights. We’ve had different guys do it. Tonight I was able to hit a bunch of shots.”
And then it was Jimmy Butler coming off one of his poorest games of the season in Game 2 when he was two of nine and didn’t make a jump shot. He scored a team best 11 fourth quarter points, including the back breaker, a dribble handoff three from Noah with 24.9 seconds left to give the Bulls a 94-91 lead.
“Short-term memory loss,” he said. “It’s a new day, new game, new possessions. My team needs me to step up and take the open shot when it’s there and definitely knock it down when it’s needed. I still have to take shots and make shots (no matter what happened previously). If it’s there take it; don’t be worried if you miss it. It was open and the shot clock was running down. That’s something I work on.”
It was another one of those unexpected games we’ve come to expect from this most unusual team, picking themselves back up and delivering a superlative effort when down and counted out and mostly dismissed.
But not only do the Bulls make the young Wizards pause and think—lose one more and it’s two of three back in Chicago—but it was the Wizards who may pull off the greatest magic trick of all in making themselves disappear, and not just from the playoffs.
In a shockingly stupid moment, the Wizards’ star of the first two games, Nene, got himself ejected after a virtually non-provoked episode in which he headlocked Butler and cocked his fist to throw a punch. He was ejected with 8:28 remaining and the Wizards trailing 78-76 after his layup.
Nene confronted Butler as something was said; they were forehead to forehead and then Nene went no no with a headlock and near brawl.
“I didn’t think it was that serious but obviously he thought it was,” said Butler. “I was just saying, ‘Watch all that. It’s uncalled for.’ But I’m not mad at him.”
The Wizards may be, and the NBA may as well.
It’s possible Nene could be suspended for Game 4 based on trying to throw a punch. It remains a league judgment call and as Nene didn’t connect it’s up for debate.
“I think it was the turning point,” said Noah, whose strong play against Nene Friday after Noah was outplayed by Nene the first two games appeared to have frustrated Nene. “Nene’s a big part of what they do and him not being on the court was big for us.”
And it’s also possible Marcin Gortat may not be on the court as well.
It appeared as the dispute began Gortat, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds to support Bradley Beal with 25 and John Wall with 23, left the Wizards’ bench. Leaving the bench during an incident is an automatic suspension. However, the Wizards were claiming the Bulls called a timeout as it happened so Gortat merely was getting up to join the huddle. League officials will watch the game film and make a determination.
“I think they called a timeout,” said Wizards coach Randy Wittman, who didn’t see, speak or hear any evil. “They had a breakaway layup. And I think Thibodeau called a timeout and I’m walking out like I normally do onto the floor so I didn’t see anything.”
Really, what city were they in?
But Nene’s imprudence could be one of the great bonehead moments in the history of the franchise if the Wizards lose this series.
With all the momentum, a two-game lead, coming back from seven behind earlier in the fourth quarter and having basically held off the Bulls even with all Dunleavy’s scoring, the Wizards seemed in position to steal another game in the fourth quarter. But instead of the best player in the series for the last 8:28, they had to use Drew Gooden, who was scoreless and enabled the Bulls to crowd and harass Gortat, who thus had just one fourth quarter point.
And with all that the Wizards had taken a 91-89 lead on a Beal three with 2:49 left and had tied the game at 91 with a minute left.
The Bulls almost botched it in the last seconds after Butler’s three. Trevor Ariza missed. But Dunleavy threw away an inbounds pass with 17.9 seconds left. Wall stole the ball and was fouled for two free throws to get Washington within 94-93 with 15.8 seconds remaining. The Wizards fouled Butler on what they were screaming should have been a tie up with 12.2 seconds left. Butler made both for a 96-93 lead.
Noah then fouled Beal intentionally to avoid the three-point shot, a tactic Thibodeau and, curiously, most NBA coaches rarely use. They generally fear the four-point play as so many players go right into a shooting motion. But with Beal facing away on the inbounds, Noah fouled him and fouled out. Beal missed one of two as the young Wizards were shaky at the line with Wall previously missing two big ones with 1:27 left and the score tied at 91.
Thibodeau had been much questioned after the Game 2 loss about not playing Dunleavy or Carlos Boozer late when the team had scoring droughts and sticking with the same lineup down the stretch with extended minutes that may have tired some players. Butler admitted he was one with all 53 minutes and said Friday going “just” 40:32 probably enabled him to excel shooting in the fourth quarter. Thibodeau said he always intended to rest Butler and others more but Game 2 was a case of trying to fight back from a big deficit. Thibodeau was flexible in the fourth quarter Friday, using Snell on defensive situations, the intentional foul, making several offense/defense substitutions and using eight players in the quarter as opposed to the traditional five or six.
“It’s playoff basketball,” said Thibodeau. “Hard fought, guys stepped up down the stretch, made big plays, big shots. Jimmy Butler big three. Two big threes, three for that matter (the other right after the Nene meltdown). Dunleavy was incredible throughout.”
Earlier at shootaround, Gibson said he looked forward to an expanded fourth quarter personnel. Before the game Thibodeau said he had no idea what Gibson was talking about.
Beal missed one of two free throws with 5.5 seconds left as the Bulls remained ahead 96-94. The Wizards fouled before the inbounds, so D.J. Augustin got a free foul shot. And then he was fouled and made both for a 99-94 Bulls lead with 4.7 seconds left. Over? Nah.
Tony Snell then inexplicably fouled Wall 60 feet away—Thibodeau said he shouldn’t have been a shooting foul, but c’mon—and Wall made all three for a 99-97 Bulls lead with 3.9 seconds left. The Bulls inbounded and Taj Gibson was fouled and made one of two with 3.1 seconds left for a 100-97 lead. When Gibson missed the second it bounded to the right of the basket and as Wall went to get it he dribbled it out of bounds to basically end the game.
How pivotal with all that going on, with how dominant and effective Nene had been, would it have been to have Nene in the game those last eight minutes? A 3-0 Wizards lead and the series is over. After Nene was ejected, the Wizards didn’t have a field goal from a big man.
“It looked like an MMA move to me,” joked Dunleavy of the Nene scrum. “It was one of those headlocks. It was great that Jimmy kept his cool. I think a lot of people in that situation would have started throwing blows. But Jimmy hung in there and obviously losing him probably hurt their team. That’s the way it goes sometime.”
Series sometimes turn on an incident like that.
Of course, no one among the Bulls is checking the second round pairings quite yet. But you don’t want to give life to a team like the Bulls, who also got 14 points from Carlos Boozer and 13 each from Augustin and Gibson.
The Bulls would fall behind early once again, 15-8, though Dunleavy came out firing as Thibodeau had changed up and was running more plays directed for him. Even when Dunleavy isn’t hitting shots he has the effect of spreading the court and openings things more for others. Also, the Bulls pushed the ball more for easier baskets instead of grinding into all those half court sets that result in so many late shot clock forced shots that run down the shooting percentage and make scoring so difficult.
“I think everyone wants to be out there down the stretch, but there are only five guys that can,” said Dunleavy. “We have a bunch of guys that can contribute and play and he (Thibodeau) probably has a tough decision sometimes with who to go with. Making shots tonight and stuff like that, he went with me and I always stay ready. Just feels good to get a win. It has been a rough series; we have been in positions to win a couple games. We did not get them. We come here and hang on for a victory. That is the biggest thing. We were disappointed to lose two at home. Especially when you had double digit leads in the second half of both games. I think we were surprised, disappointed. But we have a lot respect for this team we are playing so it is not like we are shocked. We knew we had to play really well to win.
It’s also been a long time coming for Dunleavy, who took substantially less money last summer to come to the Bulls because he’d only been in the playoffs twice in 11 seasons and a total of nine games. His average was 8.2 in those, losing eight of nine games with the Pacers against the Bulls in 2011 and with the Bucks last season against Miami.
“These chances have been few and far between for me,” Dunleavy admitted. “Especially on the road in the playoffs it’s a situation where you can thrive; hostile environment. I like that. I like being in an opposing arena where everyone is pulling against you and you have a chance to beat the home team.”
It looked uncertain, though, as the Wizards seemed to be on their game, ahead 30-28 after one quarter and leading 51-48 at halftime. Dunleavy had 16, but Beal, Wall and Ariza all were in double figures. No other Bull was in double figures.
The Bulls, however finally introduced their defense to the Wizards in the third quarter as Beal and Wall missed eight of nine shots against the aggressive play of Kirk Hinrich and Butler. The Bulls did weather one of their scoring droughts of 6:48 into the early third quarter. But Dunleavy, whom Beal curiously said in a TV interview leaving at halftime wouldn’t score in the second half (Dunleavy had another 19), started with a drive, added a three on top, another later against Beal and a three point play running Beal off another tough Noah screen.
“You just give credit to [the Bulls] to run most of their plays in the third and fourth quarter to him,” said Wall. “He got great looks and their bigs set good screens. He was making just about every one that he put up.”
Added Beal: “That man was hot. He was eight for 10 from three. He was in the zone. I guess the hoop was like an ocean to him. We definitely tried our best to contain him the best we could, but he was definitely the difference maker in their win.”
The Bulls led 72-69 after three. Dunleavy opened the fourth with another three (Yes, he’ll get some attention in Game 4), but the Wizards were coming back and looked about to take another game away in the fourth quarter when Nene unraveled. And it was for the most innocuous of incidents.
“I have nothing to regret,” Nene said incredibly. “I’m a warrior right there. What I did, I’m supposed to do.
“You can’t control when you play physical; things get hot,” he said. “It’s over. The whole team is thinking about Game 4 and stepping up for real in a big series. You need to move on; that’s what I’m doing. Forget about what happened. It’s all I can do, control what I can control. I don’t talk about frustration. I talk about physicality. When you play physical, definitely, you get tired. That’s what happened. We maintained our composure.”
Washington is a frustrating place to be, apparently.
At shootaround as Noah was finishing his workout with the Wizards preparing to follow, a Wizards’ security guard ordered Noah off “his” court. Noah responded colorfully and the guard began calling Noah names. Noah eventually was escorted away by teammates, though it was an inexcusable breach by a home team. Wittman admitted as much before the game and said it should not happen, though the Wizards;’ employee is said to have had issues with visiting teams before. They say and do the darndest things here whether in our out of government.
Is it a Wizards bunch becoming unhinged, from the back room to the front court?
“Emotions are riding high,” said Noah. “Just got to keep your composure. I’m not the one to talk. I’ve been in those situations, but it definitely was a bonus for us to have him out the game. It was crazy (final moments). Jimmy hit a real big, big, big three. I thought that, you know we were up, I was trying to get the ball inbounds. I thought I got held. John Wall got free, you know he is really tough to stop in transition. Jimmy made a play on the ball, got fouled. A lot going on. You’ve seen all three of these games have really come down to the end. Dunleavy played huge for us. Jimmy played huge for us. A lot of guys stepped up. I’m proud of this team. It was a hostile environment and we have a quick turnaround so we have to come back ready to go.”
And now they have life.