As Nene strolled from the practice court to the media scrum awaiting his comments on Saturday, the eve of Washington’s playoff opener in Chicago, there was something different about the Wizards forward.
The knee brace was still there, as were the dreads and the focused gaze. But his Wizards practice jersey was turned to the blue side, a sight that generally means a player took reps with the first unit.
Neither Nene nor Wizards Coach Randy Wittman would definitively answer whether the forward would make his first start since returning from a sprained knee ligament that sidelined him for six weeks. But with Nene’s play in the paint critical to Washington’s chances against Chicago, the idea of him re-entering the starting lineup on Sunday is not far-fetched.
“I’m going to do what I need to do. If I start, if I start on the bench, I’m going to do what I need to do,” Nene said. “I’m working, I’m working. The whole team is preparing themselves for the playoffs. We’ll see tomorrow.”
Since returning in an April 9 loss to Charlotte, Nene has shown no effects of the knee injury that forced him out of 21 games during the last two months, averaging 14.3 points, 2.5 rebounds, two assists and 20.8 minutes in four games off the bench.
The 6-foot-11 interior force sat out an April 12 win against Milwaukee as a precaution to avoid the wear of games on consecutive nights. But after playing with a 16- to 20-minute restriction in his first two games, Nene stayed on the floor for 24 and 22 minutes in Washington’s final two regular-season contests, respectively.
“No setbacks. Nothing. Steps that were needed; that’s why I think it was important to get some games under his belt,” Wittman said. “Obviously, before moving into the playoffs and it was good we were able to do that. And I thought he progressed well.”
Trevor Booker also progressed well in Nene’s absence, especially during the past month. The third-year forward put together his best stretch of basketball in April, averaging 11.1 points and 3.4 rebounds, including 20 points in the regular-season finale against Boston. But Sunday will mark Booker’s first playoff experience, whereas Nene is entering his eighth postseason and his absence marked the biggest difference between Washington’s two wins and one loss to Chicago this year.
“He make us so much better,” Wizards forward Al Harrington said. “He’s essentially like another point guard for us. He can control the ball in so many different ways with the low post and the high post. It’s huge having Nene back and he’s just going to make us that much more dangerous.”
The talk of whether Nene will start or come off the bench is similar to the build-up before Washington’s first meeting with Chicago in January. At the time, Nene was working his way back into the rotation after being sidelined by an Achilles injury for 12 games. Wittman elected to insert Nene back into the starting lineup against Chicago and the forward rewarded his coach’s choice, scoring eight of his 19 points in the fourth quarter to help seal a 102-88 victory.
Despite this outcome, along with another Wizards triumph against Chicago four days later, Washington enters its first-round series as a perceived underdog to the defensive-minded Bulls. But as the Wizards prep for Game 1 on Easter Sunday, Nene is leaving his team’s chances in two people’s hands: God and his teammates.
“Haters are haters,” Nene said. “We’re going to play hard with a lot of passion. Who knows the future? Only God. The haters know the past. I know the present but the future, only God knows.”