Nene palmed the back of John Wall’s head like a basketball, shook it around and cracked a smile immediately after the Wizards clinched their first playoff appearance since 2008 on Wednesday night.
Sidelined since Feb. 23 with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, Nene only recently began sitting with his teammates on the bench during games. Though he wasn’t able to share in his teammates’ euphoria on Wednesday as a full participant in the Wizards’ 118-92 victory over the Boston Celtics, Nene is working hard to make sure that he is back before the real festivities begin in two weeks.
“He’s doing more and more on the floor,” Coach Randy Wittman said.
Nene has been limited to individual agility drills with the Wizards’ training staff and is also traveling with the team on road games to continue his rehabilitation and improvement.
After the upcoming back-to-back set with the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls, the Wizards won’t play again until Wednesday, when they will play a pivotal game against the Charlotte Bobcats at Verizon Center. The break would potentially allow the Brazilian big man to have at least two practices in advance of a possible return.
The Wizards (39-36) have gone 11-8 since Nene hurt his knee and hobbled off the court at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Washington projected that Nene would be out for about six weeks, which would put him on track to play return against the Bobcats. But Wittman wouldn’t commit to an actual target date and make any guesses about how many games he expects Nene to play in advance of the playoffs.
“He’s progressing the way we thought,” Wittman said. “We’ve got to make sure he’s well first. It’s not number of games, it’s he’s got to be well, both mentally and physically, ready to step on the floor.”
Nene is averaging 14.2 points and 5.8 rebounds and the Wizards are 21-16 with him in the starting lineup. At the time of his latest setback, the Wizards were fifth in the Eastern Conference but they have slipped to sixth — 1½ games behind the Brooklyn Nets.
The Bulls and Toronto Raptors are currently tied at 43-32 in a tight race for third place. The Wizards have a good chance of facing either team, whether they rise to fifth or stay in sixth. Homecourt advantage is highly unlikely with just seven games remaining. With Nene, they have had success against Chicago, winning both games. They are 1-3 this season against Toronto, with their one win coming in triple overtime without Nene.
Before the additions of veterans Andre Miller and Drew Gooden, the Wizards had struggled mightily in Nene’s absence, losing six of the seven games he missed earlier this season with an injured right Achilles’ tendon. Overall, the team is 19-42 without Nene since acquiring him from Denver in March 2012.
“Even with Nene going down missing five, six, weeks now, these guys didn’t blink an eye,” Wittman said after the Wizards’ beat the Celtics. “We had some ups and downs like you always do and were still learning the process of what it takes to be a really good team.”