Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

When Nene is out, Wizards struggle to maintain winning ways

John McDonnell/The Washington Post - Nene has missed 38 of 123 games since he joined the Wizards — and the team’s record in those games is 7-31.

Nene’s importance to the Washington Wizards was eminently clear in Friday’s letdown against the lowly Milwaukee Bucks. A foot problem in the second half ended the injury-prone Brazilian big man’s night, and the Wizards looked lost without their smartest player in a 109-105 overtime loss to a team with one of the NBA’s worst records.

For the Wizards and Nene, it’s a familiar story.

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Since the Wizards acquired Nene in a three-team trade in March 2012, they’ve been much better when he’s on the court. Getting him there is the problem. It’s unknown how long Nene will be sidelined because of his latest injury, which comes at a bad time for the Wizards.

Before Friday’s loss, Nene and point guard John Wall had led the Wizards to one of their best stretches in years, as Washington reached .500 in December for the first time since 2007. But the team’s next three opponents — Denver, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Clippers — have winning records, high-scoring guard Bradley Beal still is sidelined and productive swingman Martell Webster also left Friday night’s game with an ankle injury. The Wizards want Nene back in the lineup as soon as possible. The numbers explain why.

Of the 123 games the Wizards have played with Nene on the roster, he has missed 38 and Washington went 7-31. The Wizards (9-10) are winless in three games without Nene this season, and also dropped both games in which he was unable to finish.

Washington has no reserves capable of replacing Nene’s scoring and rebounding, let alone his intangible contributions, which are equally important.

Few NBA big men are as savvy as the 6-foot-11 Brazilian. Nene reads defenses well and often reacts correctly. He’s also a good passer, helping Wall direct the Wizards’ offense. And then there’s his defense: He’s “one of those guys who’s always in the right spot . . . and he’s a great helper,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said.

Early last week, Nene did a little of everything in a 98-80 victory over the Orlando Magic, totaling 14 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots in 31 minutes. Not bad for a reluctant participant. Before the game, Nene told Wizards center Marcin Gortat he needed a night off. Nene figured his new best friend on the team would provide a sympathetic ear, but he guessed wrong.

Although Gortat joined the Wizards just before the season began, he has been with them long enough to know how to handle Nene. Gortat cut off Nene mid-sentence and challenged him to play through his pain, which he did. For Gortat, mission accomplished.

“I know he wasn’t happy with me,” Gortat said. “I know he was in pain. But it’s better he’s angry with me and he plays. You know why? Because our team needs him.”

It’s not that Nene lacks heart, Wizards people insist, but that he prefers to work when he’s in top form. Don’t we all?

“It makes me feel good when I [feel good], so I can help my team,” Nene said after practice the other day.

When dealing with the man he affectionately calls “The Brazilian Gladiator,” Gortat has one rule: No pity parties. “I tell him, ‘You too big to complain,’ ” Gortat said. “I say: ‘Listen, I know you’re in pain. But even 50 percent of you is still good for us and you can give us a lot.’ ”

The deal that brought Gortat from the Phoenix Suns was among the best in Grunfeld’s long Wizards tenure for many reasons – Gortat’s positive influence on Nene among them.

No one in the Wizards’ organization was happier than Nene about the arrival of the productive Polish low-post scorer and rebounder. Nene, who at 31 isn’t as spry as he once was, no longer draws the toughest inside defensive assignments. He spends more time shooting 15-foot jumpers than playing with his back to the basket, which is the way he likes it. Nene has shown his appreciation by watching out for “The Polish Machine.”

“I’m definitely grateful for everything he did for me the first few weeks in Washington,” Gortat said. “He was the guy who really took me under the wing and helped me. We definitely build the chemistry.”

It’s obvious, the Wizards say. “Nene and him have created a good bond,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “They know where to be and where not to be with each other.”

Off the court as well. Gortat backed up Nene after he essentially called out Wall for his poor approach through the first three weeks of the season. After Nene’s comments, the Wizards came together and Wall took his game to a higher level.

In the most encouraging start to a season in a long time, Nene is doing big things for the Wizards. They just have to keep him in the game.

For more by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

 
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