For two days, praise has been heaped upon the shoulders of Nene. His Washington Wizards teammates are eagerly anticipating the return of their low-post leader and Coach Randy Wittman said that good vibes surrounded the gym when the veteran forward returned to practice Monday for the first time in six weeks.
The only person left to convince of his potential impact is Nene himself.
In his first public comments since sustaining the sprained ligament in his left knee that sidelined him for the last 21 games, Nene expressed a desire to wipe away any rust and test his endurance during the Wizards last five games before entering the high-intensity environment of the NBA postseason.
“At some point I need to play. I’ll play a little bit (Wednesday) and test my body and my knee and see where I am,” Nene said while holding a red, blue and black knee brace. “I tried pushing myself, and they say I look good, but for me that’s not enough. For me, it’s a process of getting back where I left off.”
That process is expected to begin Wednesday, when the Wizards host Charlotte in its biggest game of the season. With Washington holding a one-game lead on the Bobcats for the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and the tiebreaker up for grabs, the Wizards expect Wednesday’s contest to feature the type of physical play that typically surfaces in the postseason — a setting Washington hasn’t competed in since 2008.
“We’re fighting for a seed, so it’s basically a playoff game,” Wizards guard John Wall said. “[Nene] will probably be on a minutes restriction, but I think just the presence of having him out there and seeing how hard he worked in fighting to come back [will] give our team another boost.”
Before going down with his knee injury in a Feb. 23 victory against Cleveland, Nene had put together his best string of play this season, amassing double-digit points in 15 straight games, including a 30-point, seven-rebound effort against New Orleans in his last full contest.
Nene’s elevated play didn’t always translate in the standings — the Wizards went 7-8 in that stretch – but it did result in wins against playoff contenders Golden State, Oklahoma City and Portland and built enough momentum for a stretch of nine victories in 10 games heading into March.
“They help us to be where we’re supposed to be,” Nene said. “We have a lot of experienced players, but each one needs to do his homework and pay attention. In the playoffs, everybody knows your strength.”
In Nene’s absence, the Wizards have relied slightly more on their outside shooting, firing 21.2 three-point attempts per game – about one more than their average before Nene was injured. But their percentage of points in the paint has increased from 39.8 to 41.9 in the last 21 games, which speaks to the impact of Gooden, Marcin Gortat and Trevor Booker in the interior.
With Nene in the lineup, however, Washington’s defense improves behind his rebounding ability and the Wizards are better able to spread the floor for shooters like Trevor Ariza, who returned to practice Tuesday after missing the previous session to recover from the flu.
For a 31-year-old who has missed extended time due to injury in nine of his 12 seasons, Wittman expects Nene’s impact, like his minutes on the floor, to be gradual at first. But with the postseason just a week away, Nene is looking to take a smart yet accelerated approach in pushing his limits for the team’s benefit.
“My body right now is tired, and I know the playoffs is a lot of physicality,” Nene said. “But that’s the way I play, so I’ll probably adapt quickly with that. . . . I just came back from injury, this is my second practice, so (the Charlotte) game is going to take me to get momentum, my time, my game shape. That’s the priority of this game right now.”