Unsurprisingly, both Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau and Washington counterpart Randy Wittman downplayed the suspension of Wizards’ big man Nene for Sunday afternoon’s Game 4 at the Verizon Center, which ended up being a 98-89 Wizards’ win, putting the Bulls on the brink of elimination in the first-round series.
“Yeah, you know, it’s playoffs. There’s a lot of emotion involved. But they’re a deep team and we have to be ready for everyone. We know how good the guys coming in are. They played 26 games without him so it’s not like it’ll be a big adjustment for them and we’re going to have to be ready right form the start of the game,” Thibodeau said. “Look, if you’re in this league, you’re a great player. So the challenge is to not let your guard down. The guys, they played very well when he was out and I think they gained a lot of confidence, just as we had to do. Sometimes when people are out, other guys grow. Not to take anything away from Nene—certainly he’s a great player—but they have a lot of other great players on that team, as well. So we have to be ready for them.”
Countered Wittman, when asked for his thoughts about the suspension, which was a response to the big man’s Game 3 altercation with Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler: “Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter what my thoughts are.”
While Bulls’ sixth man Taj Gibson was able to take advantage of the absence on the defensive end of the floor, scoring a career-high 32 points, All-Star center Joakim Noah was relatively quiet as a scoring and playmaking threat, two areas Nene has seemingly affected in the series. Nene’s replacement, undersized power forward Trevor Booker, played his usual feisty brand of basketball, but while he had eight points and nine rebounds, to go along with a solid defensive performance, he also endured foul trouble.
“Well, I don’t know,” Thibodeau said, in response to a reporter’s question about whether the Bulls were able to maximize Nene’s absence. “You just mentioned Taj had 20 [first-half points], so I don’t know if we could do better than that. But the game tells you where you’re going. The disappointing thing was the start to get in that hole. That’s the thing we have to correct.”
Noah added: “They didn’t run Nene’s plays, but they’re still very dangerous. They have a lot of weapons. The Wizards have a lot of weapons. That being said, I think they’re beatable. We’ve just got to find a way.”
Gibson, however, saw things from a different perspective.
“I feel like we didn’t take advantage of it. I feel like we were too relaxed. In this league you can’t be relaxed. Just because one of their starters is out, you got to just come out, you’ve got to have that dog mentality,” he explained. “You’ve got to step on their necks right away. I thought Booker did a great job to start the game off with the right kind of tone—hustle plays, tip-backs—and they just jumped on us. We were on our heels from the jump and it was so frustrating to watch because we had a great shootaround, had a great practice and Thibs really told us what was going to happen. But it’s just really frustrating right now.”
Bulls veteran floor general Kirk Hinrich, somewhat familiar with some of the Wizards, including Booker, from a brief stint in Washington in the 2010-11 campaign, agreed.
“(Booker) poses problems. He’s strong, athletic, good defender. You could tell they had a sense of urgency to start the game. And we can’t let that happen,” he explained. “We know each other very well at this point of the series. It’s going to be hard to get deep post-ups. They have to kind of come off and get the ball in the paint off penetration or duck-ins or in transition. Earlier, we weren’t getting stops enough to get out and go. They really had us bogged down.”