Wizards’ Nene provides ‘intangibles’ with increased minutes in Game 1


I’m going to be sore after this, but so what. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

CHICAGO – Nene wasn’t very happy about having his minutes restriction increased to 24 late in the regular season, which raised some concerns about how much he would be able to play in the first round of the playoffs as he continues his recovering from a left knee injury. It now seems that Nene just wanted to make sure that he had enough in store for his first postseason appearance since 2011.

Before Game 1 against the Chicago Bulls, Nene suggested that he will go for as long as he felt good on the floor. He clearly felt fine while playing 35 minutes and contributing 24 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and disrupting the Bulls with his heady defense.

As he strapped on his knee brace before Monday’s practice, Nene was asked how his body felt after playing the most minutes since a Feb. 11 loss in Memphis, which prompted a smile.

“I’m tired. I’m sore,” Nene said. “But tomorrow is another day. We’ll see.”

The playoffs present an opportunity for Nene to get some rest, with no back-to-back games and long timeouts. After Tuesday’s Game 2, Nene will have two days to prepare for Game 3 at Verizon Center. And given what he meant to the Wizards on both ends of the floor, Washington will surely need his presence to defeat the Bulls.

“That make playoffs the best,” Nene said. “Basketball is physical. A lot of physicality in the post, especially in my position, but when the ball goes up, you forget about that and you focus on what you can do to help your team and forget about the sore, about the pain. At night, my body feel more fresh.”

Nene shot 11 of 17 from the field and came one point shy of his playoff career high set with the Denver Nuggets but he many of his contributions weren’t measured simply by statistics. He had the lowest plus-minus of any starter – plus-seven – but the Bulls weren’t comfortable when the Brazilian big man was on the court, bullying them or hitting mid-range jumpers. Washington is 3-0 against Chicago this season with Nene in the lineup.

“What he gives us with intangibles is hard to replace,” said Coach Randy Wittman, who started Nene for the first time since Feb. 23. “With Nene back, it gives us another option down there and I thought we did a good job of throwing it in and we didn’t always score in there, but it opens things up on the perimeter when you have to be concerned with somebody down on the box and that’s always been important for us.”

Joakim Noah earned defensive player of the year this season for spearheading the Bulls’ league-leading defense, but the timing of the award he received on Monday seemed a tad off considering how much Nene outplayed him. When the Bulls decided to pay more attention to Nene, he was unselfish as he worked a two-man game with Andre Miller in the fourth quarter and also found Marcin Gortat open after he and Bradley Beal attracted three defenders in a pick-and-roll set.

“He’s a terrific player,” Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He is unselfish, makes plays, and plays away from the basket. If you allow him to get an open 15-foot shot, he will make it as well. Defensively, he pressures the ball, he’s got good hands. He played a very good game for them.”

Nene also used his long arms and footwork to shut down Noah’s effectiveness in the high post by cutting off his passing lanes. He also had a huge steal, ripping the ball from Noah’s hands and taking it the length of the court for a reverse layup.

Taj Gibson sparked the Bulls’ second unit in the first half, scrapping for offensive rebounds and throwing down emphatic jams, but he couldn’t get many clean looks with the 6-foot-11 Nene towering over him. Nene eventually fouled out with 11 seconds remaining, celebrating the victory by pointing toward the sky.

In two games in Chicago this season, Nene has scored 43 points and shot 59 percent (20 of 34) from the floor and played more than 35 minutes in both games. Nene is prepared for a different scheme in Game 2.

“Playoff, especially after the first game is about detail, is about plan,” Nene said. “They bring a new plan and we need to stay with our plan and maintain our aggressiveness, our strategy, because we’re very similar team but the little detail will make the difference.”

Gortat laughed at Nene’s suggestion that he is in pain. “He will be fine,” he said. “That’s his smoke. His cover smoke. He’s really good.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.

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Michael Lee · April 22, 2014