- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2014

Nene closed the three-inch height difference between himself and Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler when he leaned down to connect foreheads. Game 3 of last season’s first-round playoff series between the Bulls and upstart Washington Wizards had become heated — so much so that Nene’s light initial brush of Butler after a basket led to the cranial connection, a skirmish and ejection.

Thirteen total points had been scored in the first quarter of the Wizards‘ first preseason game this season. Tone-setting Paul Pierce, new to the team, chopped Butler to stop a fastbreak. While the referees examined replays, Pierce and Butler began a discussion. Joakim Noah pushed Pierce away. Pierce pushed back, jabbing his index finger into Noah’s forehead before putting both fists up. Multiple players charged onto the floor.

This is atmosphere between the Wizards and Bulls, who play Tuesday night at the Verizon Center. Washington’s journey into relevancy has provided groundwork for animosity between the teams. The Wizards kicking the Bulls out of the playoffs in five games last season further stoked the irritation.

Just before the preseason began, Pierce assessed the Eastern Conference. As a part of the overview, he gave a rundown of the Bulls.

“You look at Chicago, they’re going to be in the conversation,” Pierce said. “But, you know, they’re not a team you can say is a favorite. They haven’t been to the finals. They haven’t won anything.”

He was a bit more gracious Sunday night.

“We know that the Bulls are tough,” Pierce said. “They are one of the best teams in the NBA — when healthy.”

Healthy is an enormous caveat for Chicago. Point guard Derrick Rose has played just 16 games this season. In those games, the Bulls are 11-5. Without him, they are 6-4. Though, the 16 games is progress. Rose played just 10 games last season. He played 39 games in the 2011-12 season. His injuries have been numerous and devastating to the Bulls‘ hopes.

Washington also has warts to fix before tipping off with Chicago. It won, 105-103, in Miami last Friday, though it was the first time in four games Washington had allowed more than 100 points.

Last Sunday night, the Wizards were engaged for about five minutes.

Afterward, they were dormant against the scrappy Phoenix Suns.Outrebounded, outhustled and outworked, the Wizards watched their six-game winning streak crash. Only two nights before they were scheduled to play the Bulls, Washington was the softer team.

“We got outworked,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “I take my hat off to them. They outworked us. They out-physicaled us, all game long. We’ve got to fix that.”

Pierce is also trying fix the aching big toe on his left foot. He walked with a clear limp after Sunday’s game and did not practice Monday. However, he told reporters he would be ready to play Tuesday night against Chicago. When asked Sunday if he would need an extended period of time off in order to heal the toe, Pierce was non-committal.

“I don’t know, we’ll see,” Pierce said. “It’s day to day.”

Small forward Martell Webster, who has been out all season because of his third career back surgery, is creeping closer to playing. He won’t be ready to face Chicago, but has an outside chance to be active for the Christmas day game against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden.

Before that marquee game, the Wizards will face the Bulls. Nene and Butler — who is having a breakout season — will be back on the floor together. Pierce and Noah will reconvene. The Wizards will need to toughen up. The only things missing will be Mills Lane and Michael Buffer.

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