But by the end of the night, Nene was reduced to the role of playing a bit part in an impressive 112-108 victory that revealed the continued progression of his current team from a bottom feeder to a team confident it can succeed with John Wall back in the lineup and Bradley Beal performing at the level of a third overall pick.
The Wizards (8-29) have alreadly recorded upset wins against Miami and Oklahoma City, last year’s NBA Finals participants, this season but claimed their second road victory in one of the toughest environments for a visiting team. They withstood a 23-point third-quarter ambush from Nuggets point guard and Maryland native Ty Lawson, Beal survived a hard foul late in the game from Kosta Koufos and Wall bounced back from some haunting missed free throws in Sacramento to provide a reminder that these aren’t the fumbling Wizards of the first two months of the season.
“Our record isn’t reflective of who we are, how we’ve played and how we’re playing,” Emeka Okafor said as the Wizards handed Denver just its third home loss of the season. “We’re starting to turn the corner, winning four out of five and feeling good. Starting to close games with confidence.”
Wall had his second consecutive double-double with 14 points and 14 assists in 26 minutes and scored eight points in the fourth quarter, when his team was sorely needing some offense. Then, with his team clinging to a two-point lead in the final seconds, Wall snuck behind teammate Martell Webster to block Lawson’s tying layup attempt.
“John is very athletic, but he jumped over me to block that shot,” Webster said. “That’s amazing.”
Wall recovered the loose ball, got fouled, then pumped his fist before drawing a foul and clinching the win with two free throws. Two nights before in Sacramento, Wall missed two free throws and a potential game-winning jumper as the Wizards’ opened the trip with a 95-94 loss to the Kings.
“I knew he wanted to get back that opportunity,” Coach Randy Wittman said about Wall.
Wall said he shot 200 free throws in Thursday’s practice because he was upset about the finish. He also was motivated by a phone call from his mother, Frances Pulley.
“My mom called me like, ‘I couldn’t believe you missed them.’ I never miss end-of-game free throws. I like the ball in those situations,” Wall said. “If we can keep going, we can finish the season strong and you never know what can happen. We’re not going to give up on this season.”
Nene said the Wizards would be upset after they gave away the first game of this trip in Sacramento — where they squandered a five-point lead in the final four minutes — and suggested that his former team was probably going to have to pay. He proved to be prophetic as Beal continued his stellar play this month, connecting on four three-pointers and scoring a team-high 23 points. Beal bounced up from his crash landing with 2 minutes 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter and made two critical free throws.
Kevin Seraphin added 18 points, rebounding a miss by Trevor Ariza and tossed the ball in with 28.9 seconds remaining to give the Wizards a 108-104 lead. And Ariza rebounded from a rough outing in Sacramento, where he missed all six of his field goal attempts, to make three three-pointers and score 14 points off the bench.
Seraphin said afterward that the team really wanted to help Nene leave Denver with a win after the Nuggets shipped him last March to acquire JaVale McGee from the Wizards.
“For sure, he was motivated because that was his team before. I was motivated because I play against JaVale. We all was motivated,” Seraphin said with a laugh. “That’s really big. [McGee] was the guy before me, the starter. To have a chance to play against him, I was like, I will play my best.”
McGee had limited influence on the game and watched the final seconds unfold while clutching a towel on the bench. He scored six points in 14 minutes, converting two dunks near the end of the first half to give the Nuggets a 50-45 lead.
The Wizards were engaged in an end-to-end track meet with one of the fastest and most athletic teams in the league but they appeared to be finished in the third quarter, as Lawson (29 points) erupted and gave the Nuggets an 87-78 lead when he took a pass from Corey Brewer and dunked with 40.5 seconds in the period.
But the Wizards didn’t go down without striking back with a run of their own. They scored the next 15 points and never trailed after Jordan Crawford, back after missing the previous four games with a sore ankle, drained a three-pointer to give them a 90-87 lead.
Nene finished with just seven points and four rebounds but he walked off the floor with a victory. “My teammates did a great job. It was a good game. Better with the win,” he said. “We took the victory. We gave it away in Sacramento and we took it here.”