CHICAGO – Randy Wittman didn’t think much of the question. Not nearly as much of it as I did, for instance, seeing as how I was the one who asked it Monday night: Would the bad blood and feistiness of the Washington Wizards’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls carry over to the preseason opener for both teams?
“In an exhibition?” Wittman, the Wizards coach, said with a chuckle. “You need a storyline, huh?”
We got a storyline that night. And we got another one Wednesday afternoon, when the NBA announced that four of Wittman’s players were suspended for one game for leaving the bench area during an altercation between Washington’s Paul Pierce and Chicago’s Joakim Noah in the first quarter Monday at United Center.
In the first quarter. Of, yes, an exhibition.
Additionally, Pierce and Noah were fined $15,000 each for their roles in the scuffle. A scuffle that didn’t realize, apparently, that it was supposed to wait another month or so.
“Obviously once we get going and the season winds in here, those things play out,” Wittman had said about 90 minutes before Monday’s tipoff. “Not so much a game like this where a lot of people will be playing, the lineups will be different… I’m sure when it rolls around to November, that will be a little bit different.”
The next round, er, game between the Wizards and the Bulls will be in Washington on Dec. 23, the first of four regular-season meetings in a simmering new rivalry.
Wittman’s instincts must not have been in championship-season shape yet, because things boiled over Monday with 8:57 left in the opening quarter.
Pierce fouled Chicago’s Jimmy Butler hard across the jaw. While the referees gathered to review the play as a flagrant or common foul, Pierce and Noah exchanged words and Noah pushed at the veteran forward. Pierce reacted by poking a finger into Noah’s forehead, which sparked an NBA version of a baseball fight.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who was on Boston’s staff when Pierce and the Celtics won a championship in 2008 and has been Noah’s coach since 2010, found himself smack in the middle like a pro wrestling ref dwarfed by the combatants. Chicago fans reacted like it was a Bears or Blackhawks game.
“It was great,” Noah said after the game. “It got all the summer out of me. It feels good to be back on the court.”
That was the problem for Washington: Nene, DeJuan Blair, Daniel Orton and Xavier Silas all left their team’s bench area and moved in the direction of the skirmish at the scorer’s table. That brought the automatic suspensions from NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn. They will be served in the Wizards’ season opener or the first regular season game in which each player is physically able to play.
Pierce wasn’t around for the playoff clash last spring, but he and the Bulls didn’t much like each other in his Boston or Brooklyn days, either.
“That’s just the tension between these two teams that’s kind of now carrying over to this year, I feel like,” Pierce said. “I’m a part of it now. Even when I was with the Celtics, that’s how I was with them.”
At the end of the third quarter, Washington’s Kevin Seraphin set a hard screen on Butler and was called for an offensive foul. He stood over the fallen Bulls player for a beat too long, in Butler’s opinion, prompting more shoves.
It was hard not to connect the dots back to last spring and the teams’ heated first-round series. Noah and a member of the Wizards’ security team had a testy exchange at the morning shootaround before Game 3 in Washington. That night, Nene and Butler literally butted heads in an on-court confrontation, with the Wizards’ big man getting ejected and suspended from Game 4.
Then there was the fact the Wizards eliminated the Bulls in five games. It was a sign of Washington’s ascendancy with its precocious backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, while at the same time abruptly ending another season Chicago had begun, at least, with hopes of title contention.
That’s why some folks anticipated chippiness Monday, preseason or not.
“Whatever it was, I guess that’s what it’s going to come down to every time we play them guys,” Butler said. “I guess guys just don’t like us. I’m cool if they don’t like me.”
Said Wall: “That lets you know how it’s going to be for the four times we play them in the regular season. It might get a lot worse than that.”
Grab your calendar now: Dec. 23, Jan. 9, Jan. 14 and March 3. Might as well circle the dates in red, since both teams will be seeing red.