WASHINGTON -- Tom Thibodeau and his Chicago Bulls players didn't want to speculate whether Washington Wizards big man Nene would be suspended for Sunday's Game 4 of their Eastern Conference playoff series after head-butting Jimmy Butler late in Friday's Game 3. But now that the penalty has been doled out, it figures to be the single biggest break of the series for the Bulls.
Nene's presence in the Wizards' lineup can't be overstated.
He has affected this series in a lot of different areas -- but the biggest issue for the Bulls has been how his length has disrupted Thibodeau's offense. Specifically, how Nene's size and activity has limited what Joakim Noah has been able to do at times on the high post.
Without Nene in the fold, the Bulls, trailing the series 2-1, should look a lot more like the team they were during the final three months of the regular season, particularly on offense. Noah should be able to create more opportunities for his teammates and get them into rhythm early, since some of his passing lanes are figure to be open again.
"They're pressuring me a lot, a lot more than usual," Noah said Saturday, before Nene's suspension became official. "I have to do a better job of making sure I don't turn the ball over. They've been doing a good job with that, and I think it's been giving them a lot of easy points in transition and things like that, so I definitely have to do a better job of not turning the ball over."
The Bulls destroyed the Wizards in an April 5 meeting when Nene sat out because of a knee injury. Noah had 21 points and 12 rebounds, while Carlos Boozer chipped in with 16 points and four rebounds. The difference was that the paint, and the high post for Noah, was open.
Noah, the freshly minted defensive player of the year, also struggled containing Nene in the first two games of these playoffs on the defensive end. Without Nene in the fold Sunday, it's a matchup that both Noah and Boozer must use to their advantage.
"The game tells you what shots are going to be there," Thibodeau said. "If [Noah's] shots aren't there -- Joakim helps us in a ton of ways. His screening, I thought, was terrific [Friday], and his defense was very good. So he doesn't have to shoot and score for him to play well."
Maybe not, but Noah has not put up the massive numbers in this series that have defined his season. He has been frustrated by the pressure that Nene and others have brought to bear. Now that that pressure will be off, it's time for him to lead the way as he has all year for the Bulls.
Noah must set the tone on both ends that his teammates follow. He started setting that tone Saturday when asked if he was bothered by the notion that the Bulls are just trying to "rough up" the series and make it more physical because they don't have as much talent.
"It's crazy to me how quick people are just passing judgement and say, 'Oh, this is who they are,'" Noah said. "Every game is different, every situation is different. They have a lot of physical players, and we try to play a physical game and try to win the game. But every situation is different. At the end of the day, it's the way the referees see it, so their perspective is what matters most. The only thing we can do is control what we can control -- and that's do our best."
Without Nene on the floor, Noah's best should be enough to carry the Bulls on Sunday and tie the series up. The emotional center hasn't faced many opportunities like this in his career to date -- games in which he is being counted on to provide even more of a scoring punch given the circumstances. But he has proved throughout his career that he has the ability to rise to the occasion in the biggest of games, as he did in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last season against the Brooklyn Nets.
For Noah to take the next step in his evolution as an offensive leader, he must take full advantage of the fact that the human roadblock he has faced over the past week is out of the picture. The pressure will be on Noah to produce -- and it's pressure he'll welcome with open arms, just as he does most other things in his life.
"These games are really coming down to nothing at all," he said. "Just attention to detail. We're disappointed about losing the first two at home, especially having leads in the fourth quarter. But Jimmy Butler, [Mike] Dunleavy, a lot of guys stepped up [Friday] in a real crucial moment. And we're just happy we're in this position right now -- and with our backs against the rope -- to have an opportunity to tie this thing is huge."