Their most talented big man and highest-paid player was back home, immobile because of a sprained left knee, and not expected back on the floor in a game for six weeks. But the Washington Wizards couldn’t mope without Nene, or allow their past failings in his absence to affect their staying relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Even with Nene’s primary backup, Kevin Seraphin, out with a sore right knee, the Wizards easily won their first game since Nene sprained his left medial collateral ligament, defeating the lowly Orlando Magic, 115-106, at Verizon Center.
Before the game, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis wrote on his personal blog that the team’s goals “have not changed in any way,” though Nene could wind up missing the rest of the regular season.
John Wall said he wasn’t aware of Leonsis’s blog entry — “I don’t check it” — but he played as if he was heeding the owner’s words, scoring a game-high 27 points to go with seven assists. The Wizards left little doubt against a struggling Magic team that has lost 16 straight road games.
The Wizards (29-28) have won a season-high four consecutive games and have a winning record for the second time this season. They also matched their win total from last season.
“Oh, hell. Here we go again,” Wall said, when asked his reaction to Nene’s injury. “Another tough injury for our team. It’s something we dealing since I’ve been here; guys being injured. It’s tough when he’s a key part of your team. Everybody jumped on this thing, we can’t win without him. But it’s a good opportunity for us to step up and be bigger players.”
The Wizards improved to 2-6 without Nene, but Coach Randy Wittman had his nerves tested early in the second quarter when his depleted front line appeared to take another hit. Trevor Booker, who started in place of Nene, tweaked his left ankle, limped up and down the floor and later headed to the locker room.
“I was shaking my head. . . . you know how they say, ‘These things come in threes,’ because Kevin and Nene get hurt,” Wittman said, laughing to himself. “But he ended up being okay.”
Booker returned to finish with three points and seven rebounds. Marcin Gortat — the Wizards’ lone big man on the roster capable of playing center with Nene and Seraphin on the shelf — welcomed being more of a focal point in the offense and scored 21 points with a team-high 10 rebounds.
“It’s not easy to play without Nene. He’s a really physical, mean guy. If he’s rolling, nobody can really stop him. Somebody got to step up now, seriously,” Gortat said. “It’s definitely not good news for us. At the end of day, we’ve got to continue to play.”
Without much size, the Wizards played to their strength on the perimeter and connected on 10 of 16 shots beyond the three-point line. Trevor Ariza scored 22 points and made all five of his three-point attempts, including a step-back shot from long distance that bounced high off the rim and dropped in the fourth quarter.
“I guess, I’ve been living right. Doing the right things,” said Ariza, who has gone 9 for 9 from three-point range and scored a combined 46 points in two wins this season against the Magic. “With Nene being down, we have to find ways to fill in from what he does for our team. It’s not going to be an easy task, but I feel like we have the talent in here that together we can do something.”
Bradley Beal also had 21 points, giving the Wizards four 20-point scorers for the first time since April 6, 2010 — when a quartet of Nick Young, JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche and Shaun Livingston accomplished that feat in a win over Golden State.
“We’ll be tested,” Beal said of the Wizards’ challenge without Nene. “We have to be prepared for moments like this.”
Wittman said before the game the team was fortunate the injury to Nene wasn’t more severe.
“This is the best-case scenario,” the coach said. “It could've been a lot worse when you’re dealing with a tear or surgery. We’ve got to look at the positive side of it. It was nothing more than a sprain and we’ve got to get him rehabbing and see where we go.”
The Magic took an early 7-6 lead before Wall asserted himself offensively by going on a one-man 11-0 run. He made a three-pointer, threw down a driving dunk, and then converted a three-point play after doing a wicked crossover dribble to get around Magic forward Maurice Harkless. When he hit his second three-pointer of the night, the Wizards led 17-9 and were in solid control for the rest of the game.
The Wizards went ahead 86-69 in the third quarter when Wall whirled the ball around his waist, drew in the defense and kicked the ball out to Booker for an open jumper.
“No matter how many shots I missed, I knew I had to knock that down,” Booker said with a laugh. He added that the team will have to continue to stay together with Nene gone. “We had a good chemistry going. He was playing so well right now. So, to lose him, a big key to our team, somebody else has to step up. He’s a big part of our team. We’ve experienced so much since I’ve been here. I think we know how to handle adversity now.”
Wizards note: In dire need of front-court depth, the Wizards agreed to terms with veteran big man Drew Gooden on a 10-day contract, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation. Gooden, a 6-foot-10 forward, is expected to arrive in Washington on Wednesday night and will sign before practicing with the team at Verizon Center. The 11-year veteran will then join the Wizards for their two-game road trip to Toronto and Philadelphia.