CHICAGO — Nene was restless the night before his first playoff game in three years, waking up in his hotel room in the middle of the night, worrying about how he would perform, stressing over how the Washington Wizards would respond to the cacophony of an unfamiliar environment.
The excitement and angst were understandable given Nene’s long road back to relevance. Thrust into a difficult transition after the Denver Nuggets dealt him to a rebuilding franchise that lacked a solid foundation and was focused on the future, Nene had his time in Washington marred by injuries to his feet and legs. But his ability to affect the game with his passing, scoring and intelligence has always been undeniable — and in Game 1 of the Wizards’ first-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, the efforts of the Brazilian big man proved to be the difference in a 102-93 victory at United Center.
“It’s a magical moment,” Nene said after scoring 24 points, grabbing eight rebounds and recording a critical block in the final minute. “I understand everything that happens in my life. I’m happy to be here, to be able to help my teammates, my team. I understand that people say things that they don’t know, but who can control our present is ourselves. Who can [control] our future is only God. That’s what we believe. We need to believe each other. We need to trust each other, and the sky is the limit. I think we can surprise a lot of teams if we play the right way. That’s what we try to do.”
The Wizards weren’t picked by many experts, with the common refrain that inexperience would derail them. John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards’ young back-court mates, made their playoff debuts, but the Wizards were stocked with veterans who have been through postseason battles. With the game on the line, the Wizards’ franchise cornerstones had to defer to the players who have been there before, with Nene, Andre Miller and Marcin Gortat teaming up to lead a stunning rally in the fourth quarter. That trio and Trevor Ariza combined to score the first 24 points for Washington in the period, with Gortat giving the Wizards a 96-90 lead when he rebounded a Wall miss, hit a baseline jumper and screamed madly as he ran to the bench.
“I know I can play better offensively, but to get a win like this and have my teammates step up when I didn’t have a good game is big for us,” Wall said after the franchise’s first victory in Game 1 of a playoff series since April 18, 1986, when the Bullets won at Philadelphia. “We don’t have a lot of experience as young guys, me and Brad, but we have great leaders. Those guys do a great job of keeping us calm and telling us to keep fighting.”
Before Gortat (15 points, 13 rebounds) silenced the crowd, Nene blocked a shot by Kirk Hinrich in the left corner with 55.9 seconds remaining and grabbed the rebound. Wall had 16 points and Beal had 13, but the duo combined to miss 18 of their 25 field goal attempts and didn’t score in the fourth quarter until the final 25 seconds, when both made two free throws apiece.
Ariza made three of the Wizards’ four three-pointers and finished with 18 points, and Miller scored 10 points, all in the final 14 minutes. Game 2 will be Tuesday in Chicago.
Before the Wizards made their long-awaited return to the postseason, Randy Wittman — who is making his postseason coaching debut — was asked whether his team was the underdog, and he responded defiantly. Wittman was confident the Wizards had the talent to contend with the gritty Bulls, and his players weren’t shy about mentioning how they had won two of three games against Chicago in the regular season.
“You never know how you’re going to react in the first game, but I knew these guys were focused like they’ve never been before, and that’s always a good sign coming into the playoffs,” Wittman said.
Nene played in the Wizards’ two wins and was absent in the only loss to Chicago, so Wittman made a relatively easy decision to start him for the first time since Feb. 23. Nene had returned from a knee injury to play four of the final five regular season games and felt good enough to play an enhanced role with the postseason underway. He quickly calmed the nerves of his teammates by opening the game with a thunderous dunk over Bulls forward Carlos Boozer and scored eight of the Wizards’ first 12 points.
The Bulls led 64-51 early in the third quarter, but the Wizards refused to crumble. Wall had a steal and dunk to ignite a 19-6 run that ended when Ariza made a three-pointer to bring the Wizards within a point.
Miller entered the game near the end of the third quarter and worked a nifty two-man game with Nene as the former Nuggets teammates kept providing the necessary counters. Nene later found Gortat cutting to the basket for a dunk that brought the Wizards within 87-86. Ariza then gave the Wizards their first lead of the second half with two free throws. Nene put the Wizards ahead 94-90 with a foul line jumper.
“Obviously, it gives us a lot of confidence,” Gortat said. “It gives us a lot of belief that we can win another game, but still, we’ve been in this situation many times. We can’t get excited. We got to stay focused. We got to get ready for the next game.”
The Wizards had to wait nearly six years to get back into an atmosphere in which fans in the stands wore the same colors and every possession mattered. A long and painful rebuild around Wall finally paid dividends with a matchup against the Bulls, the same team that Washington’s basketball franchise had faced after prolonged basketball droughts in 1997 and 2005.
The only common link from the past playoff matchup between the franchises is Hinrich, who had a momentary stop in Washington before returning to Chicago after a stop in Atlanta. Hinrich served as Wall’s primary backup for four months, passing along some of his knowledge to the former No. 1 overall pick.
Hinrich flustered Wall in the half court, forcing him to take jumpers that came up short while the Bulls effectively got the ball out his hands. Beal actually led the Wizards with seven assists, and his defense in limiting D.J. Augustin (16 points) to just four second-half points helped compensate for a difficult shooting night. Nene, however, made sure Washington came away with a well-earned win.
“I was very excited about playoffs,” Nene said. “I just try to prepare myself, give my best, and the mental preparation is very important. I hope my teammates prepare themselves for another battle because it’s going to be a long series.”