- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Wizards have plenty of experience playing without Nenê, their suspended forward who sat out Sunday’s Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Chicago Bulls thanks to an angry on-court outburst two days earlier.

In 22 of their last 26 games, the Wizards made a playoff push without their skilled, 6-foot-11 Brazilian. A sprained MCL in Nenê’s left knee forced Trevor Booker into the starting lineup then.

Ahead 2-1 in the series, but coming off a loss in Game 3, Washington turned to Booker again. He was ready. It was Booker’s inspired play early in the first quarter that helped set the tone in a 98-89 victory over Chicago. The Wizards now lead the series 3-1 heading into Game 5 on Tuesday in Chicago.

“A lot of people counted us out because we didn’t have Nenê,” Booker said. “But we knew coming in that we still had a good chance to win this game. We’ve won games without Nenê, so we know what to do when he’s out.”

Booker finished with eight points and nine rebounds and blocked three shots. He was never going to replace Nenê’s scoring. He didn’t have to. There were other Wizards to take care of that. Booker just had to do his job – hustle, defend, finish around the basket when given the opportunity. In short, exactly what he did when Washington went 13-9 without Nenê down the stretch, holding its own without its best interior player and eventually earning a No. 5 seed.

“There wasn’t any worry of mine of now sticking in a guy who now has to start in a playoff game,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “That deer-in-a-headlight, worried look that you might think because your main guy is gone. Book did it for 22 games when he was gone, and our guys play well while he was gone and got us in a position to get us in the playoffs.”

Booker averaged 7.8 points per game and 4.8 rebounds per game in Nenê’s absence. He played 24.6 minutes a night during that stretch. On Sunday against the Bulls, Booker played 27:45 and would have seen more time except he fouled out with 2:53 to play and his team ahead by 10 points.

Booker had used all six of his fouls battling Chicago’s interior players, who didn’t make Nenê pay for his decision to butt heads with and grab Bulls guard Jimmy Butler by the neck in Game 3. He was ejected for that transgression and suspended on Saturday by the NBA for one game. Nenê wasn’t even allowed to attend the game at Verizon Center. And yet it didn’t matter.

“I felt like we didn’t take advantage of it,” Chicago forward Taj Gibson said. “I feel like we were too relaxed. In this league you can’t be relaxed just because one of their starters is out.”

Gibson did score 32 points with seven rebounds and helped the Bulls outscore the Wizards in the paint 40-36. But it wasn’t near enough to overcome Washington consistently hitting open 3-point shots (8-for-19) and forcing 16 turnovers.

“We know each other very well at this point in the series, both teams. It’s going to be hard to get deep post ups,” Chicago guard Kirk Hinrich said. “You have to get the ball in the paint with penetration or duck-ins or in transition…Book poses problems. He’s strong, athletic, good defender. You could tell they had the sense of urgency to start the game and we can’t let that happen.”

The Bulls even won the rebounding battle, 42-38. Forward Joakim Noah had a game-high 15 for Chicago. But he and forward Carlos Boozer didn’t do enough to help Gibson inside with just 18 points between them. The Bulls fell behind 14-0. Booker had a big part of that initial run and later in the first quarter had two blocked shots within a minute of each other on Boozer and guard D.J. Augustin to bring the crowd roaring to life.

“I thought Booker did a great job just starting the game off with the right kind of tone – hustle plays, tip backs,” Gibson said. “They just jumped on us. We was on our heels from the jump.”