- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2015

The residual benefit of last season’s first-round playoff series win against the Chicago Bulls is animosity. For the first time since 2005 and third time since 1979, the Washington Wizards crept into the second round of the NBA playoffs after taking that series. They beat the Bulls 4-1 to do so. Since, the battles continue.

Even before this season started, the two teams raised tensions and, temporarily, fists after Paul Pierce jabbed Joakim Noah in the forehead with an index finger in the first game of the preseason.

Through three games against each other during the regular season, the Wizards and Bulls have continued to deploy their brutish and bygone approach of enabling head-knocking big men and worrying about defense first. In those three games, the Wizards hold a 2-1 series edge after outscoring Chicago, 298-284.

The games are tense and filled with multiple irritants. Tuesday night in Chicago is expected to be a repeat of past grapples. Disdain among the Wizards‘ big men for Noah runs high. Noah is a talkative, demonstrative, rebounding and defending dervish who easily bothers the opposition.

One member of the Wizards, in particular, becomes stirred up when facing the Bulls. Power forward Nene does not care for Noah or Chicago. He has mentioned this in the past, but chose not to elaborate Monday after practice. However, others made the point.

Nene? Yeah. He doesn’t like Chicago,” Bradley Beal said. “He hates Joakim.”

Not long ago in the NBA, a hostility toward an opponent was standard. The league has given way to a more pat-on-the-back approach worried about branding and fashion. The era of congeniality has replaced the menace of the early 1990s or physical play of the 1980s. Obsession with the 3-point shot has helped the culture change, shifting desire for post players to ones for the perimeter.

However, the Bulls and Wizards cling to these past ideals of dislike. Mimicking the other’s basic construction helps: an excellent point guard, a shooter, a physical small forward and two adept big men. Washington counters Noah and Pau Gasol with Nene and Marcin Gortat. Paul Pierce has worked through the season to mute Jimmy Butler, holding him to just 25.7 percent from the field in three games. Earlier in the season, John Wall and Derrick Rose worked out a one-on-one battle elevated by Rose skipping to the sideline after a score.

“We really play physical whenever we play them,” Beal said. “Everybody’s on edge whenever we play Chicago, for whatever reason. I don’t know.”

Nene always appears to have something roiling underneath the surface. On the floor, he’s constantly tugging on his elbow sleeve and shooting death stares out from beneath his pony-tailed braids. His dunks at the Verizon Center are accompanied by one of the few primal parts of the game experience in arena overloaded with rattling bass and campy production. “Nay-Nayyy!” public address announcer Ralph Wesley bellows after a jam from the Brazilian.

Wesley uncorked one Saturday night after Nene pump-faked Andre Drummond, then drove and dunked on Greg Monroe. It was a two-fer toppling of the Detroit’s big men. Engaged and emphatic, Nene scored 21 points.

“That was good to see from Nene,” Wittman said. “When he plays like that, we’re no question a better team, a more physical team, a more engaged team.”

The issue is it’s random. Nene’s production, with the caveat that he plays for a team that pursues scoring balance as opposed to bloated individual numbers, often feels below what his talent and force can provide. He averages 11.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. His passing and defense are both excellent. At this point, as an oft-injured 32-year-old, what his body has left to give nightly is a fair question.

“I think Nene, his body is just so beat up, man,” Beal said. “There’s games where he can’t give us 100 percent. We respect him for giving his effort. But, whenever he locks in, he’s unstoppable.

“I tell everybody, whenever he really wants to lock in and play the way we know he’s capable of playing, nobody can guard him. Nobody can score on him, because I think he’s a great defender, too. Whenever he’s being the Nene that played in Chicago [during the playoffs] and played the way he did the other night, we’re a great team.”

Nene has made six more starts this season than he did last season. Assuming he plays Tuesday, he will match his number of games played, 53, from last season. With 22 games remaining, he would have to play in 10 of them to reach a new high for games played since joining the Wizards in 2011.

He’ll be facing a depleted Chicago squad. Rose is out four to six weeks because of meniscus surgery. Butler is out three to six weeks because of an ulnar ligament sprain in his left elbow which occurred Sunday. Backup big man Taj Gibson is expected to miss a week because of an ankle sprain.

Even without a chunk of their core, the Bulls are expected to be just as feisty. Nene and Noah will still be in attendance to assure that. If the Wizards win, they will take the season series and any possible tie-breaking for the playoffs. It would also mean back-to-back wins after a brisk six-game slide. Much is at stake in what Wittman called an “important” game. During it, for one night in one arena, the chumminess that pervades the league will be put on hold. Just ask Nene.

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