Nene had grown accustomed to being in the playoffs from his time in Denver, but he also recalls a time when 50-win season didn’t come with regularity and when the Nuggets were one of the league’s more dreadful franchises. During Nene’s rookie season in 2002-03, Denver won just 17 games and had a .207 winning percentage that, incredibly, is worse than his current Wizards team.
The Nuggets turned it around when they drafted Carmelo Anthony and signed point guard Andre Miller in the summer of 2003, but Nene understands the road to respectability can be difficult.
In his 10th season, and back on a lottery team, Nene believes the Wizards (11-39) are going through similar growing pains as his team in Denver. And, after the Wizards lost, 93-89, on Thursday to the Indiana Pacers, Nene said he remained encouraged by how his new team is playing and drew a parallel to his challenging rookie season.
“I learned,” Nene said. “This is a long process. It’s hard. I’m going to repeat this every time: This young team, a lot of second-year players, a lot of rookies. You need to learn. You need to get this type of game. See what you can learn from the loss and get better. To win, you need to learn from losing a game. It’s a big experience right now. We work, step by step, we’re improving in a lot of areas.”
The Wizards have lost five in a row and are just 2-7 since acquiring Nene, but they have been a scrappier, more physical and more competitive team in defeat. And they have been staunch defensively. The Pacers became the seventh consecutive team that failed to score at least 100 points against the Wizards. The Wizards haven’t held seven straight teams below triple digits since December 2007.
With Nene paired with either Trevor Booker or Kevin Seraphin, the Wizards have a more imposing front line and they limited to Pacers to just 32 points, with Indiana missing 19 of 35 shots inside. The trio combined for six blocked shots and the Wizards had 10 as team. Indiana also shot just 39.2 percent. It was the third opponent that the Wizards held below 40 percent shooting in five games that Nene has played.
“Defensively. We do a great job. Offensively, we just have to be smart a little bit. We’re going to continue to go to the right direction,” Nene said. “Little detail makes a difference in a game.”
The Wizards are 1-4 with Nene in the lineup, but the four losses have been by a combined 11 points, which has led to frustration and disappointment. After the loss to Indiana, a white-haired reporter asked Coach Randy Wittman about the frustration of losing so many close games.
“How frustrating to do you think it is? My hair is almost your color, or getting close. Does that give you an idea of how frustrating it is,” Wittman said.
The Wizards led, 68-60, with about four minutes left in the third quarter, but allowed the Pacers to go on a 14-1 run over the next five minutes to regain control. “We need to understand, we need to learn in the third quarter we need to match the physicality,” Nene said. The Pacers “got confidence in that moment. When it’s a close game, when they score. You have to take it seriously and execute the right play.”
The Wizards failed to execute offensively in the final minutes, with John Wall and Jordan Crawford combining to commit four turnovers in the fourth quarter. With Washington down by two in the final minute, Wall threw the ball behind him and Chris Singleton was unable to track it down before it was a back-court violation. The most effective offensive play in the final minute was when Roger Mason worked a give-and-go with Nene that ended with a Nene dunk that brought the Wizards within 91-89.
“Let’s make the easy play,” Wittman said. “If you make the easy play and you miss the open jump shot, that’s making strides, but we’re not getting attempts at the basket some.”
Nene has had three double-doubles in five games and scored 16 points with 14 rebounds against the Pacers. The Wizards still have a ways to go before they can win consistently, especially on the road against playoff contenders, but Nene is optimistic that it won’t take long.
“We are not going to be the best team tomorrow,” Nene said, “but if we keep going like that, working hard like that, playing together and keep learning, we are going to be good in the future.”