Wizards’ Nene practices for first time since injury, eyes return

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the oft-injured Nene should return to action with the Wizards before the start of the postseason. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

After participating in his first practice since being sidelined by a sprained knee ligament six weeks ago, Nene plopped into a chair on Monday and rested as two ice packs were wrapped around his knees. But with the Washington Wizards forward expected to return to action this week and the playoffs just around the corner, Nene had no interest in calling it quits for the day. Instead, once the trainer was done, he hopped up and joined several of his teammates for an extra session of shooting drills.

Nene’s presence, along with the stakes surrounding Wednesday’s game against the Charlotte Bobcats, have already placed many of the Wizards in a playoff state of mind, resulting in a practice on Monday that forward Drew Gooden deemed as one of their best in recent memory.

“We’re still trying to find out what seed we’re going to be in the playoffs and not knowing who our opponent is going to be, so we can’t take any days off,” Gooden said. “I already know what to expect with [Nene]. He’s a physical force down there, he can pass it extremely well for a big man and we need it. We need him.”

Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said Nene engaged in “almost” everything during Monday’s practice and the team would monitor his recovery before making a decision on his availability for Wednesday’s game against Charlotte, which trails Washington by one game for the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference standings. The winner will own the tiebreaker in the postseason race.

Since Nene went down with a knee injury during a Feb. 23 contest against Cleveland, the Wizards have gone 12-9. However, in that span, opposing teams have increased their offensive rebounding percentage against the Wizards from 23.8 to 25.9 percent, according to NBA.com. In games that Nene has been in the starting lineup, the Wizards have posted a 21-16 mark.

Should Nene suit up Wednesday, his physical play will be welcomed on the defensive end against Bobcats center Al Jefferson, who has averaged 22.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in the teams’ last two meetings — both Charlotte wins. In the 49 games that Nene has played this year, Washington’s defensive rating (the number of points allowed per 100 possessions) drops from 105.2 to 99.0 points when he’s on the floor.

“He brings a big strong body that can get some of those rebounds, and sometimes we don’t have to double team as much,” Wizards backup point guard Andre Miller said. “Obviously we didn’t run as much today, but he looked solid.”

Gooden has not had a chance to play with Nene since joining the Wizards in late February. While Nene’s return, which could mean limited minutes initially in a reserve role, could take away playing time from Gooden and Trevor Booker, the two appear to have earned Wittman’s trust during the last 21 games. The forward tandem has pulled down a combined 11.1 rebounds per game and both are shooting 53 percent or better.

Although the Wizards have already clinched their first playoff berth since 2008 and three of their final five games are against non-playoff teams, the next two weeks will prove key in finding the right lineups and chemistry among the likes of Nene, Gooden and the rest of Washington’s 10-man rotation.

“We’re worried about winning and getting in the playoffs. If you’re worried about minutes, your head’s in the wrong spot,” Wittman said. Gooden has “been a big help for us. He came right in and helped immensely. . . . Now, with a situation of a veteran guy that’s played in the playoffs, you can’t have too many of those.”

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