Nene’s return to the starting lineup went a long way toward helping the Wizards regain their identity in a 102-88 victory over the Chicago Bulls.
But the move also helped Nene get back to playing at the level that he is more accustomed, with an all-around performance that highlighted his scoring and playmaking ability. Nene finished with 19 points, five rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots as he snapped out of a recent slump in which he whined to officials about calls, had a spat with teammate Trevor Ariza and appeared out of sorts at the foul line.
His problems at the foul line continued, but he compensated with aggressive defense and punishing drives to the rim.
“I learned one thing. I been struggling the last few games. I watched my preacher today and the message was pretty clear: All the difficulty, God put into your life, it make you better,” Nene said. “I been complaining about everything around me and at the end of the day, I need to look into my mirror and saw, nobody going to stop you. When you give your best, everybody will know and that’s what God want.”
Feeling better about his sore right Achilles’ tendon, Nene played 36 minutes, the first time since a Nov. 30 win over Atlanta that he played at least 30. The Wizards (17-19) also improved to 10-7 when Nene starts. They are 7-12 when he comes off the bench or doesn’t play.
“You know what you’re getting out of Nene,” Bradley Beal said. “If he’s starting or coming off the bench, his role doesn’t change and the flow of the team doesn’t change, either. We go through him a lot. He was able to produce on the block and knock down a lot of shots as well. He found a lot of guys cutting and for open shots as well, so it was great to have him back in the starting lineup.”
With Nene and Beal adhering to minute limitations, the Wizards had managed to avoid a complete collapse but fissures had started to form on the plan.
Coach Randy Wittman was open to keeping Nene coming off the bench if the team played well, and the Wizards initially went 5-4 with Trevor Booker starting in his place. As the quality of the opponents improved, however, the Wizards experienced a dropoff in consistent production with extreme lapses at the start of quarters contributing to them losing five of seven.
The sluggish run, combined with Nene’s recent clearance to play more minutes, led Wittman to make a change on Monday against the Bulls. Wittman informed Booker that he would return to reserve role and that Nene would move back into his starting spot. Booker didn’t complain about the move after scoring six points with two rebounds in 23 minutes.
“Either way, starting or coming off the bench, I’m going to come in playing the same way,” Booker said. The difference with Nene on the floor was immediate. The Wizards’ first five made baskets were all assisted and converted by a different starter — Nene fed Beal cutting for a layup, Marcin Gortat connected with John Wall for a jumper, Wall found Nene for a jumper, Beal hit Gortat for a running slam dunk over two defenders and Nene flpped the ball to Trevor Ariza for a jumper. Washington built an early lead on the Bulls and never trailed.
“It change a lot in our team and our first punch. We were able to hit them hard from the get-go and give us the confidence that we need,” Gortat said. “It’s a totally different story for me, being with Nene. Nene brings a lot of attention. You always have to make the decision to pick up me on the role or stay with Nene. He’s a big dude. He brings a lot of attention in the post. He’s a very good passer, so I know if I seal, I can expect that pass.”
When asked if he will continue to play more than 30-plus minutes going forward, Nene said that his playing time will be based more on how the game is going. He hasn’t averaged more than 30 minutes a game in any of the previous three seasons.
“Coach, he had conversation with the trainer and he know, when our schedule get a little crazy, he know how to take care,” Nene said. “They will see. I can’t tell you Coach is going to read. If I’m hot, he’s going to maintain me. If I’m cold or have foul trouble, for sure, not, he will sit me. That’s what make me down a little bit, all this physicality, a lot of games behind each other. The schedule has been really weird.”
Nene had averaged just 9.5 points on just 40 percent shooting in his previous four games. He also shot just 2 of 9 from the foul line in losses to Indiana and Houston. The free throw woes continued against the Bulls as he missed 5 of 6 from the line.
“When you have adversity, you have to step through and beat adversity. Right now, it’s a free throw,” he said. “I know free throw is in the mind. I make a lot of free throws to win game and now look like I never shoot it good. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m going to look forward to getting better, back to where I was.”