CLEVELAND — Nene has set the same screen dozens of times this season, hundreds of times in his career, and emerged unscathed. But when he slid over to cut off Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jarrett Jack in an attempt to free up teammate Bradley Beal, Nene immediately felt a throbbing pain after Jack collided with his left knee.
Hobbling back on defense, Nene winced as he shouted for Marcin Gortat to foul Cavaliers backup big man Spencer Hawes to stop play. Gortat was slow to react, so Nene committed the foul himself, then slowly lowered himself to the floor, wincing and grabbing his leg with the Washington Wizards clinging to a three-point lead midway in the third quarter.
When Nene goes down and limps to the locker room in agony, the Wizards usually react with a collapse of their own. But that wouldn’t be the case Sunday night, when the Wizards clamped down defensively, Kevin Seraphin and Al Harrington filled in admirably and John Wall led the team to a 96-83 victory over the Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena.
“It’s too early to say, but we’re all scared. We’re hoping it’s nothing serious,” Gortat said. “It was really hard. But we’ve seen that if we play good defense, if everybody is engaged and locked in, we are a good team. We kind of forgot that Nene was missing, and we’re glad we got that win.”
Nene will have an MRI exam Monday to determine the severity of the injury.
The Cavaliers won both meetings against the Wizards at Verizon Center this season, and Washington returned the favor by sweeping both games in Cleveland. Wall had been upstaged enough times by Kyrie Irving this season and decided it was his turn not only to outscore the fellow former No. 1 overall pick but shut him down as well. Wall scored a game-high 21 points while handing out nine assists and held Irving — who had scored 92 points in the first three meetings — to 15 points on 6-for-17 shooting, including 0 for 5 in the fourth quarter.
“It’s always tough. Everybody always wants to know who’s the best young point guard at our position and the best guy in the Eastern Conference,” Wall said. “We did our best to try to stop Kyrie and not let him take over the game like he’s been doing in the past. When I’m locked in defensively, I feel like I can do the best job on anybody.”
Wall also took over during a critical stretch at the end of the first half, when he scored the Wizards’ final eight points with a breakaway two-handed dunk and two three-pointers in the final 30.9 seconds, including a fadeaway bank shot to send his team into the break with a 58-52 lead.
He ended much suspense late in the game when he used a crossover dribble to get some separation from Luol Deng and buried a jumper. Gortat, who was tangled with Irving as the shot dropped, patted him on the back side before running back on defense.
With Nene gone, Gortat grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds and scored 13 points, and Trevor Ariza had 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Wizards (28-28), who have won three straight to get back to .500 and also evened their road record at 14-14.
“I think that it’s very important for us. Everybody else has done it, and we feel like we’re one of those teams that’s very capable of going on a streak,” Ariza said. “I feel like it’s our turn.”
The challenge will be tough if Nene is gone for an extended amount of time. In one of the more dramatic turnarounds of the season, Nene went from matching his career high with 30 points and throwing down the game-winning dunk with 0.3 seconds remaining one night to hopping off the court with an injured left knee the next. Nene skipped off the floor, grimacing, with the Wizards leading 66-63.
Andre Miller moved over so Nene could sit down on the floor, and head athletic trainer Eric Waters rushed to check on him. Nene grabbed the inside of his knee and winced before Waters helped him stand. Nene has missed just seven games this season and none since returning Dec. 18 after missing four with a sore right Achilles’ tendon. The Wizards are 1-6 without Nene this season and lost two other games against Oklahoma City and Milwaukee that he was not able to finish because of injury or ejection.
Wizards Coach Randy Wittman was forced to rely on Seraphin and Harrington, who returned Saturday after missing the previous 46 games with a right knee injury. Harrington wasn’t shy about putting up shots and scored five points — his first baskets since Nov. 11. Seraphin had six, including back-to-back hook shots after the Cavaliers got within 78-74.
“I thought they responded well,” Wittman said of Seraphin and Harrington.
Beal scored 17 points and had two huge steals in the fourth quarter by reading the passing lanes and being in the right spot for interceptions. After his final steal, Beal bounced off Hawes, spun around and made a difficult, twisting layup over Jack.
“In order for us to win the game, it all starts on that end, and I think in the fourth quarter and throughout the whole game, that was the first game we came out with energy on defense and offense,” Beal said. “Our defense definitely won us the game.”
Wittman was disappointed with the Wizards’ defensive effort against the Cavaliers two weeks ago, when Cleveland scored 67 points in the first half, the most allowed by Washington this season. The Cavaliers didn’t have Deng for that victory, but when he returned for the rematch, the team was missing Dion Waiters, C.J. Miles and starting center Anderson Varejao. With a depleted roster, they didn’t reach 67 points until there were about four minutes left in the third period, and they shot 38.5 percent for the game.