CLEVELAND — When he opened his mouth to complain about the Washington Wizards’ “young guys” after a loss last week in San Antonio, Nene also put the pressure on himself to step up and produce. Since making those comments, Nene has privately addressed his concerns about the team’s poor play with John Wall and Bradley Beal, apologized for publicly airing out his frustrations and moved on by putting together his best three-game stretch since joining the team.
Nene matched his season high with 24 points and added eight rebounds and six assists in the Wizards’ 98-91 road victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday. He threw a no-look pass to Martell Webster for a dunk, got a steal and dribbled up the floor for a one-handed jam and added timely plays to ensure that his team escaped with a win after having a 27-point lead whittled down to four with 2 minutes 56 seconds remaining.
After Cavaliers all-star guard Kyrie Irving completed a personal 11-0 run by barreling into Beal and making an off-balance runner in the lane and the subsequent free throw, the Wizards were in an incredibly uncomfortable position. But the Brazilian big man backed down his countryman, Anderson Varejao, drew a foul and made both free throws to give the Wizards an 88-82 lead.
“That was definitely a game-changer,” Beal said. “Because they went on a huge run and it was big for Nene to get to the foul line . . . and knock down two clutch free throws for us. I think that got us going momentum wise.”
Cavaliers reserve Matthew Dellavedova harassed Beal into critical turnovers and an air ball during the late-game unraveling. But after Irving made another floater in the lane to again cut the deficit to four, Nene trusted that Beal could get going and found him curling around the right elbow for a jump shot that helped the Wizards survive.
“They play with real high intensity and desperate. Like hungry, hungry,” Nene said of the Cavaliers. “I think we lost a little bit of concentration, but at the end of the night it was a great win. All these things is experience. Good to learn what we did good, what we did bad.”
Nene has scored at least 20 points in each of his past three games, averaging 22.7 points on 59 percent shooting in helping the team go 2-1. He had only scored 20 points in consecutive games once in his previous 1½ seasons in Washington.
Beal took exception to Nene’s comments in San Antonio but has also elevated his performance in the past three games, averaging 26.3 points and shooting 12 of 19 (63.2 percent) from three-point range. He carried the team offensively for much of the night in Cleveland, scoring a team-high 26 points and matching his career highs with six three-pointers and eight assists.
“I’m just playing the way I know I’m capable of playing and having fun. That’s my main goal. Not to press myself and just let the game come to me,” Beal said. “Whenever you win, you see the smiles and everybody’s attitudes, laughing, happy. That’s what we need. Like I told the guys, ‘Let’s have fun.’ And we were doing that, and we end up almost going up by 30. As long as we continue to have fun and play together, we’re going to be good.”
Nene scored 24 points in the first game after his rant, but he missed a potential game-winning free throw in the final seconds of regulation and the Wizards lost to Cleveland in overtime at Verizon Center.
His free throw woes have had an influence on at least two of the Wizards’ losses this season. He also missed six of the Wizards’ 13 missed three throws in a 106-105 overtime loss to Oklahoma City. But in addition to shutting down all-star Kevin Love in the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ 104-100 win over Minnesota on Tuesday, Nene also clinched the victory with two free throws. He has made his past 10 attempts from the foul line.
“I learn,” Nene said with a smile.
After Coach Randy Wittman made him hash out his differences with Wall and Beal, Nene said he hoped it would turn into a positive. He has encouraged his players to hold each other accountable and was more disappointed in the forum Nene chose to express his frustration than what he said.
“I want guys to feel like they can talk from their hearts. I don’t want guys to be phonies. I’m not,” Wittman said recently. “Sometimes, there is a right way of doing it and a right time of doing it, but I want those guys to feel free to be able to talk to one another and when you have to sit down and work things out, you sit down and work things out. You don’t do it behind other guys’ back. I think that was the big thing about it. It wasn’t something that festered. We talked about it, walked out of there feeling good about it.”