For the Washington Wizards, it was one of those, "You can’t point to a single lost opportunity. You can probably point to them all" type of games.
There were controversial calls, plenty of missed free throws and 35 points from unexpected stage-stealer Mike Dunleavy. Just like in Games 1 and 2, the outcome could have easily gone the other way, but unlike those contests, the first playoff game in the nation’s capital since 2008 did feature that one potential series-altering moment.
The incident happened after Nene, the man whose status for the next game is now in the hands of the league, leaked out past the Chicago Bulls defense and scored on a layup. The basket closed Washington’s gap to 78-76 with over eight minutes left in the game and led to a Chicago timeout. As Nene turned to chug the other way -- players on the court not yet decompressed after the timeout whistle -- he gave Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler a hip nudge out of his path. Butler took exception and swatted Nene’s arm away and then put his other arm into the small of the big Brazilian’s back.
Had the scene ended there, it would’ve been innocuous -- perhaps not even worthy of double-technical fouls -- but cooler heads did not prevail.
Nene and Butler went brow to brow like boxers angling for alpha male at a Las Vegas weigh-in. Some are calling what happened next a head-butt, although a head didn’t exactly cock back and throw its force. Already in close proximity, Nene’s head further infiltrated Butler’s space. It was a next step up the stairs of aggression. Butler leaned his head forward to counter the leverage. Nene then took a swipe at Butler’s head.
It was unclear whether Nene was throwing a roundabout, open-handed right paw or, as he also attempted to cusp Butler’s head with his left hand, if he was simply acting like a papa bear marking his territory against a cub. It was at that point, as the interlocked players moved across the court, when referees and teammates stepped into the fray to make peace. Washington’s Trevor Booker grabbed Butler to remove him from the scrum. Chicago’s Joakim Noah stepped in the path of Nene and eventually raised his arms as if to say to the man who has bested him in the series to date, "Dude, what are you thinking?"
“I’m not the one to talk. I’ve been in those situations," Noah said. "But it definitely was a bonus for us to have him out the game."
Upon further review by the officials, a double technical was assessed to each player and Nene was ejected from the contest. Whether he lost his cool or was trying to show Butler who holds the keys to the house, Nene escalated the situation, and, at one point, he appeared to raise a clenched fist in the air.
The Wizards were strategically mum on the situation in front of the media, seemingly filled with angst (which ironically might move them past the pain of the loss) over whether they would have their Nene in a critical Game 4 on Sunday. Players like Booker, a first responder, and Marcin Gortat, suspected by some to have left the bench during the mayhem, weren’t necessarily around to comment on what happened.
"I didn’t see it. I didn’t see any of it," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "I didn’t see anything, so I can’t comment."
Wittman did, however, address whether he thought any of this players left the bench. "I don’t think so. It’s a timeout, anyway. You can leave the bench on a timeout."
"My back was turned as it all went down," said Bradley Beal, who was on the court and headed toward the bench.
"It’s over, it’s over, it’s over," said Nene, wanting to move past the incident while it still grated him.
"If you want to talk fair, it’s supposed to be both sides," he said. "Things don’t go well. Things don’t go fair for both sides, so you need to move [forward]. That’s what I’m going to [do]."
The Wizards forward was 5-for-15 from the field before getting ejected. He was often frustrated by the defense of Noah and selectively conservative whistles from the referees. Noah had picked up his second foul at the 3:49 mark of the first and then saw 24 minutes of physical court time until he picked up his third foul at the 9:20 mark of the fourth quarter. The Wizards, through Nene, had been making their best attempts to pound it into the paint even more against Noah and Carlos Boozer, who had also picked up two early fouls.
Now, speculation will run rampant until the league makes a ruling. What constitutes a head-butt? Will commissioner Adam Silver be more pragmatic than predecessor David Stern? Was an ejection, which undoubtedly contributed to the loss, be punishment enough, or must harsher lessons be learned?
"There’s been skirmishes in all three games, but you got to be able to maintain so you don’t lose your cool, or you’ll get thrown out," Wittman said. "That’s the main thing we got the learn from this."
Washington was able to survive a 21-game stretch from late February to early April without Nene (due to a sprained MCL) with a 12-9 record, but against this Bulls squad in these playoffs, he's a critical component, particularly from an offensive standpoint. The defeat brought an abrupt end to the Wizards’ playoff honeymoon, but a Game 4 without Nene could slap Washington with the cold reality of an even series and the return of home-court advantage to Chicago.
Asked if he thought he would be playing on Sunday, the spiritual Nene said, "I don’t know. You know the rule, huh? So, I’ll see."
But for this particular occasion, the NBA will be Nene’s judge and jury, determining in a day whether he will be in uniform, or simply wearing his Sunday best.