- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2014

Big moment.

Big heart.

Big game.

Big time.

Sunday’s 98-89 win by the Wizards over the Bulls at the Verizon Center in Game 4 of the first round of the NBA playoffs was all of those.

It was a big moment for this team, handicapped by the absence of their emotional but foolish leader, Nene, suspended after first butting heads and putting his hands on Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter of game three Friday night.

It showed big heart because Nene’s selfishness when his team needed his poise was so Wizards-like – another dysfunctional meltdown by a franchise defined by failure and futility – seemed to set the stage for a Wizards meltdown in game four.

Up 2-1 in the series, after losing Game  3 at home, Game 4 was of course a big game. You don’t want to go back to Chicago with the series even at 2-2 – especially, when, for anyone watching this series, it’s obvious the Bulls can’t match the Wizards talent. You don’t want the series tied up, making it best two of three with Chicago holding home court advantage.

It was big time, because this mixture of young players and veterans showed the team is stronger than any one player, and played its best game of this series.

Maybe this team learned that lesson when Nene missed 21 games late in the season because of a knee injury and the team went 12-9. Wizards coach Randy Wittman suggested that in his postgame press conference Sunday. “I think it was a blessing in disguise, maybe, those games he [Nene] missed,” Wittman said. “Our guys played well while he was gone.”

Nene owes his team an apology for bailing him out Sunday. If this Wizards team had folded – as has been a franchise tradition – under pressure, the loss would have been laid at Nene’s large feet.

He put himself ahead of the team when he locked heads with Butler Friday night, and then put his hands on him. The casual observer could see that part of the Bulls game plan would be to make the Wizards lose their cool and do something stupid. They tried it with Bradley Beal in game two, but the 20-year-old wouldn’t take the bait.

The Bulls landed a big fish in Nene Friday night.

For those who thought there was a chance Nene would not be suspended for game four, you haven’t been paying attention to the NBA. You put your hands on another player like that – especially when play has stopped like it did – and you’re sitting down. Nene knew it after the game when, asked by reporters if he thought he would be suspended, told them, “You know the rule.”

What’s worse, he made me look bad for writing that glowing column Friday about Nene being the smart, responsible heart and soul of this Wizards team.

His teammates saved Nene by opening game four Sunday with a 14-0 run. And they didn’t just do it with perimeter shooting by Beal and Trevor Ariza, although Ariza was unstoppable, scoring 11 first quarter points and 30 for the game. They went inside to Marcin Gortat as well, as the big man wound up with 17 points, six rebounds and five assists, showing no fear of the paint despite the absence of Nene.

As well as Ariza played, the Wizards don’t survive the loss of Nene without the play of Gortat, who was still a physical presence, despite having two fouls early, and didn’t back down from Chicago’s tough guy attack.

“We were locked in,” Wittman said. “I could tell our focus was back yesterday [Saturday], even with the news of Nene being suspended. I saw our guys bond together.”

Defensively, the play of Gortat and Trevor Booker, starting in place of Nene, allowed the Wizards to put the Bulls away early and keep them down throughout the game. The two big men shut down the paint for Chicago, and helped create turnovers, which the Wizards fed on for the entire game. Washington scored 29 points off turnovers, compared to just eight for Chicago.

And while the young tandem of Beal and John Wall didn’t carry the game, they played under control and came through in key moments – like Beal, driving to the basket near the end of the first half, then remarkably dishing it out, with three Bulls on him, out to Ariza in the corner for a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the Wizards a 55-40 lead going into the locker room at halftime.

Now it’s on to Game 5 in Chicago Tuesday night, where all the Wizards have to do is not beat themselves – and keep Nene from beating anybody up.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com


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