WASHINGTON — Even with the team's "X-factor" suspended, the Washington Wizards had a No. 42 sitting next to the bench. The 57-year-old with graying hair couldn't box out or grab a rebound, but owner Ted Leonsis waved his red towel and egged on a cheering crowd that chanted "Free Nene!"
The Wizards did just fine without the suspended Brazilian forward. They scored the first 14 points and beat the Chicago Bulls 98-89 on Sunday to take a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference series.
"I thought it was pretty hilarious that Ted had Nene's jersey on," Wizards guard Bradley Beal said. "It kind of threw me off for a minute, but then I looked and seen it was Ted."
Nene or not, the Wizards did what they've done all series: Take a quick lead and force the Bulls to use up energy trying to catch up. It was 15-8 in Game 3, 29-12 in Game 2, 19-13 in Game 1. Washington, seeking to win a playoff series for only the third time since the 1970s, can finish off the Bulls on the road in Game 5 on Tuesday night.
"We keep seeing this same kind of start for the last couple of games, and it's frustrating," said Taj Gibson, who came off the bench to lead the Bulls with a career-high 32 points. "It seems like at times we get overhyped with just thinking we're going to be OK, we're just that good. But in this league it's not about how talented you are, it's about how hard you work and how much effort you put when you start the game off, and I don't think we did that."
Nene was suspended for the game after grabbing Jimmy Butler's head in the fourth quarter of the Wizards' Game 3 loss. Wall called Nene the "X-factor" this week, and for good reason: Since the March 2012 trade that brought Nene to D.C., Washington is 65-63 when he plays and 21-41 when he doesn't.
That said, the club did hold its own by winning 12 of 21 when Nene went down with a knee injury late in the regular season, an absence coach Randy Wittman said might have been a "blessing in disguise" that helped prepare them for Sunday.
"I saw our guys bond together," Wittman said. "Like, 'That's OK, all right. Big fellow's not going to be here, but that's OK.' And we were in tune right from the start."
Trevor Ariza, getting some of the early looks that might have gone to Nene, scored a career playoff-high 30 points, making 6 of 10 3-pointers. Beal had 18 points, and John Wall added 15 points and 10 assists for the Wizards, who forced 16 turnovers and committed only six.
"I think we're a smart enough group to understand that when one of your pieces goes down, you have to find ways and will to win," Ariza said. "Tonight was my night to take on the scoring load."
Gibson went 13 for 16 from the field for Chicago, but his teammates combined to go 22 for 62. He made more field goals in the first half (8) than the rest of the Bulls combined (7). Mike Dunleavy, who scored 35 points in Game 3, scored only six.
Dunleavy jammed his left thumb attempting to take a charge in the fourth quarter. The thumb was swollen and was X-rayed after the game, but he said he didn't think it was broken.
"It probably doesn't really matter," he said. "It's my left hand and it's not going to make a difference for me."
Chicago's Kirk Hinrich committed four turnovers, and NBA Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah had a quiet 10 points and 15 rebounds against the Nene-less frontcourt.
Washington stormed to a 14-0 lead, with Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau calling a timeout after each Wizards "touchdown."
"Very disappointing to get in a hole like that," Thibodeau said. "I put that on me, and I've got to get it right. ... It's got to change or our season will be over."
Trevor Booker started in Nene's spot and had nine rebounds and three blocks. Beal called Booker "a huge X-factor" — apparently the Wizards are cornering the market on that particular commodity.
"Just because they didn't have Nene," Gibson said, "they just came out and played even harder."
Notes: Ariza's six 3-pointers tied a Wizards playoff record. ... Wittman, who played during the Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" era, was asked to compare today's game to those rough-and-tumble days. "Not even close," Wittman said. "It's like sixth-grade flag football compared to NFL tackle football."