CLEVELAND – When he opened his mouth to complain about the “young guys” after a loss last week in San Antonio, Nene also put the pressure on himself to step up and produce. And since making those comments, Nene has addressed his concerns with John Wall and Bradley Beal, apologized and put together his best three-game string since becoming a member of the Wizards.
Nene has scored at least 20 points in each of his past three games, averaging 22.7 points on 59 percent shooting in helping the team go 2-1. He had only scored 20 in consecutive games once in his previous 1 1/2 years in Washington.
On Wednesday, Nene matched his season high with 24 points and added eight rebounds and six assists in the Wizards’ 98-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. He also made some timely plays to ensure that his team escaped with a win after having a 27-point lead whittled down to four with 2 minutes 56 seconds remaining.
“They play with real high intensity and desperate. That last seven minutes, they made a couple of shots and they come. Like hungry, hungry,” Nene said of the Cavaliers. “I think we lost a little bit of concentration but at the end of the night, it was a great win.”
Cavaliers all-star guard Kyrie Irving barreled into Beal, made an off-balance runner in the lane and later converted a free throw to put the Wizards in an incredibly uncomfortable position. They had dominated the Cavaliers for three quarters, but after a meltdown rooted in complacency, Nene helped them get re-focused.
Coming out of the timeout after Irving’s layup, the Wizards knew where they had to go. Nene hadn’t taken a shot in more than four minutes, but the Wizards finally decided to work the ball inside and he stemmed the tide. The Brazilian big man backed down his countryman, Anderson Varejao, drew a foul and made both free throws to give the Wizards an 88-82 lead and halt Irving’s one-man 11-0 run.
“That was definitely a game-changer,” Beal said. “Because they went on a huge run and it was big for Nene to get to the foul line and draw that foul and knock down two clutch free throws for us. I think that got us going momentum wise.”
Beal scored a team-high 26 points and had carried the Wizards offensively for much of the night, matching his career high with six three-pointers. But Cavaliers reserve Matthew Dellavedova was hounding him and forced Beal into some critical turnovers and an air ball during the late-game unraveling.
After Irving made another floater in the lane to again cut the deficit to four, Nene got the ball inside and was able to find Beal cutting for a jump shot that helped the Wizards survive. The Wizards made 10 straight free throws in the final 2:36 to get the win.
“You learn the lesson a little bit better when you win,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “First three quarters and two minutes of the fourth, we swung the ball side to side, move it, pass, cut, open shot. Whoever had it, scored it. Then, again, with eight minutes to go we walked it up. No passes. We tried to do everything off of one option. We held on, made free throws coming down the stretch. Nene hit a couple big ones when we needed to break that ice.”
Nene’s free throw woes have had an influence on at least two of the Wizards’ losses this season. He had six of the Wizards’ 13 missed three throws in a 106-105 overtime loss to Oklahoma City and he missed a free throw that could’ve defeated the Cavaliers in regulation last Saturday in their overtime loss at Verizon Center.
But in addition to shutting down all-star Kevin Love in the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ 104-100 win over Minnesota on Tuesday, Nene also clinched the victory with two free throws. He has made his past 10 free throws.
“I learn,” Nene said with a smile.