Washington Wizards fans eager for the team’s first playoff series in six seasons can get a glimpse of what’s to come by watching Wednesday’s showdown against the surging Charlotte Bobcats at Verizon Center. And Nene is expected to return, too.
Sidelined since late February because of a knee injury, the productive Brazilian big man plans to rejoin the lineup as the Wizards — who hold a one-game lead over the seventh-place Bobcats in the Eastern Conference playoff race — try to regroup after becoming totally unglued in their previous matchup with Charlotte. For the Wizards, the return of Nene is the most encouraging news since John Wall decided to work on his jump shot.
With the Wizards having secured a spot in the NBA’s best time of year, they need Nene’s scoring, rebounding, passing and defense. Even more, they need what the savvy veteran has between his ears. Even in limited minutes, Nene figures to provide a boost against the suddenly formidable Bobcats, who have won four straight.
The Wizards intend to be smart with Nene, who last played Feb. 23 and will wear a bulky knee brace for the time being. Nene requires time to build stamina and regain his timing, so he will be restricted “early on for sure,” Coach Randy Wittman said Tuesday after practice. “The first game back, especially, we have to ease him in.”
Assuming Nene plays against the Bobcats, though, the Wizards should at least be better in stretches than they were in Saturday’s embarrassing 96-78 loss on their home court to the Chicago Bulls. School was in session as the strong-willed, defensive-minded Bulls, fourth in the East, delivered an early knockout punch. The Wizards managed just 26 first-half points, as Wall clearly could have used an assist to get the ball moving. Look for Nene to give him one in the half-court game.
Among big men in the league, Nene is second to none at directing the offense from the post. He has a keen understanding of spacing, his teammates’ responsibility in the offense and opponents’ defensive strategy. Nene also sees the floor better than some point guards. When Nene went down, the load on Wall increased considerably. The Wizards just don’t have anyone else who orchestrates like Nene does.
Although the Wizards were an overachieving 12-9 during Nene’s most recent absence (they’re 13-15 without him overall this season), don’t let that fool you. They need Nene to achieve the type of offensive balance that’s necessary to have success in the postseason.
When the regular season ends, there is less room to maneuver in the lane and fewer uncontested jumpers. Nene has a knack for making good decisions that result in points.
“Everybody know your strength” in the playoffs, Nene said. “You need to adapt. You need to adjust each game.”
Who better than Nene to show Wall and Bradley Beal how to approach their first playoff series? As a member of the Denver Nuggets, Nene played in 44 postseason games.
He understands the playoffs are “a new game,” he said. “It’s different.”
That’s why he’s coming back at a good time. The Wizards have five games remaining in the regular season. Nene will need them in an effort to regain his form. “My body right now is tired and the playoffs are a lot of physicality,” he said. “But that’s the way I play, so probably I’ll be able to adapt quick.”
Wittman did a good job with the team while Nene was out. It would have been easy for the Wizards to make excuses after losing a player who has been so important to their resurgence.
Now, Wittman must give Nene opportunities while also continuing to utilize surprising reserve Drew Gooden, who stepped in off the street to bail out the Wizards after Nene went down. “That’s what coaching is about,” Wittman said.
It’s also about getting teams prepared to play. The Wizards need to show more intensity at the outset against the Bobcats than they did against the Bulls. Wittman agrees.
“That’s gonna be there no matter what. It better be,” Wittman said. “They’re in the playoffs. We’re in the playoffs. I would be shocked if it wasn’t a high-intensity game from the jump. . . . The more we can get that type of intensity heading into what will ultimately be the highest intensity [the playoffs], the better.”
Wednesday’s important matchup and the upcoming playoffs prompted Nene to reflect back on when he was traded to the Wizards in March 2012. A national laughingstock for years, the Wizards took a big step toward respectability when they acquired Nene.
“I remember when I came here, everybody cursed this team,” he said. “They made fun of us. They say, ‘Man, you going to the wrong team. You gonna fail over there.’ . . . Lot of people biting their tongues right now.”
No doubt about it, the Wizards have come a long way since Nene arrived. And how much further they go this season may depend a lot on him.