As he drew up his game plan for the Los Angeles Lakers, Coach Randy Wittman decided to that the best way to exploit his Wizards’ strengths in the absence of Bradley Beal was to run the offense through Nene and let him make plays with his passing or possibly dominate Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill with his brute strength. When Wittman told Nene what he expected, the Brazilian big man felt obligated to deliver even after coming off two subpar performances.
Nene didn’t get off to the best start, as he missed his first two jumpers. He finally got one to drop, then stole the ball clean from Hill, did a behind the back dribble, tracked down the ball and dunked. From there, Nene attacked the rim ferociously, taking dump off passes from John Wall and dunking with both hands. He drove inside and around Gasol and Hill for layups and he hit wide open spot up jumpers. As the shots kept falling and the rims continued to get punished, Nene was moving closer to having a night like he had never experienced in his 12 seasons in the NBA.
And it came at the right time.
“Nene played big for us. Humongous,” Trevor Ariza said after watching Nene reach a new career high with 30 points and help the Wizards defeat the Lakers, 116-111, at Verizon Center in their first game this season without Beal.
In 638 regular season games, and another 44 in the postseason, Nene had never scored 30 points – or even 29 – until Tuesday night. In his first 9 ½ seasons in Denver, Nene scored 28 points three times. And since arriving in Washington, Nene had never scored more than 24 – which he had done twice already this season.
As usual, the very religious Nene gave credit to Jesus for his performance but the 31-year-old power forward also wanted to make clear that he’s aging well. “I feel like wine,” Nene said, with a smile. “Get old. Get better.”
Nene scored 19 points in the first half to help the Wizards stay ahead 59-55 in the wake of a Lakers’ three-point barrage. The breakthrough came after Nene had scored a combined 18 points in the Wizards’ previous two games against Toronto and New York.
“That’s the good thing,” Nene said. “When we don’t have superstar, you never know who is going to shine in the game. That’s a team. Everybody care about the win and help each other. Tonight, couple guys step up. Tomorrow, you never know.”
Nene then paused to congratulate Wall, who continued to play at a high level as he scored a game-high 31 points and extended his string of 30-point games to three in a row. Two weeks ago, Nene called out Wall for not playing the right way and later spoke with him privately to explain why he was so frustrated. In his past five games, Wall is averaging 25.6 points, 8.8 assists and 5.0 rebounds and the Wizards have gone 4-1.
“I’m more happy for John,” Nene said. “That kid he’s been balling the last weeks. After we have the conversation, he understand his position. He is putting everybody in their spots. He reads right. My teammates, they’re doing better things on the court. That’s not one guy, two guys, three guys. That’s the whole team, you know. What matter to us is the victory. It doesn’t matter if you score 30 points and we lose the game. When we win, everybody win. That’s our mentality right now.”
Wall had nine assists and repeatedly looked for Nene after forcing the defense to collapse. With the Wizards leading just 109-108 with less than a minute left, Wall drove inside and dropped off the ball to Nene, who stumbled while making a left-hand layup that gave him 30 points.
“That’s amazing. I thought he would have had plenty more,” Wall said of Nene’s 30-point game. “He’s aggressive and he can definitely score in the block. That altercation, everybody thought it was big when he called out the young guys but Nene’s been playing great basketball for our team. That’s something we need and we like the effort he is giving us on offense and defense. We just got to keep it going for the rest of the season.”
Given his skill set, low post moves and reliable midrange jump shot, Nene was certainly capable of putting up some high-scoring games, but Wittman added that he isn’t surprised that it has taken this long.
“Not really. I’m glad he did it” against the Lakers, Wittman said. “He facilitates a lot. He is not a guy that looks to score every time he touches the ball. There are some players in this league that do that. He is a passer, he sets people up, he swings the ball, that’s why he is so valuable to us. Those kind of things. It’s his IQ from a basketball standpoint.”
Martell Webster had another explanation for Nene’s lack of big scoring games. “It’s crazy. He played in Denver, averaging a double-double with Allen Iverson, and Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith,” Webster said. “The fact that he was able to do it there is crazy. If the situations were different for him in Denver, I’m pretty sure he would’ve had more than enough 30 balls under his belt.”
Nene isn’t focused on racking up many more. “I don’t worry about that,” he said. “It would be good if I was young. When you’ve been in the league 12 years, you try doing the right thing, you don’t worry about that.”