Only a week ago, the Washington Wizards introduced Nene to the home crowd at Verizon Center for the first time and commenced playing one of their best first halves of basketball this season. They dominated the playoff-bound Indiana Pacers, building a 22-point lead with a spirited effort that made it seem as if the team had made more than one significant adjustment to the roster.
What followed was an excruciating second-half collapse, as the Wizards succumbed to their largest blown lead of the season. Then came another disconcerting breakdown against Atlanta, followed by a beatdown in Boston and another fold against Detroit.
And as the Wizards get set for a rematch in Indianapolis on Thursday, they are in the midst of their fifth losing streak of at least four games this season. But Coach Randy Wittman doesn’t want his players to dwell so much on the final results because he feels the team has made considerable progress since the trade.
“I told our guys, ‘We’re all disappointed, probably a little frustration, but don’t lose sight of what we’re doing and putting ourselves in position to win games,’ ” Wittman said after practice on Wednesday. “Sometimes through frustration, disappointment, you can lose sight of the positivity, and I don’t want them to do that. We’re in positions of getting leads of , 16, 13, and against good quality opponents, that’s a good thing.”
The Wizards are just 2-6 since dealing away JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Ronny Turiaf in a three-team trade that yielded Nene, Brian Cook and a second-round pick. They are just 1-3 with Nene, who sat out the loss to Boston with back spasms and is questionable to play against Indiana.
Wittman wants his players to focus on how they were able to build double-digit leads against Indiana, Atlanta and Detroit; how they rallied from 25 points down to get within eight against Boston; and how they have been a markedly improved defensive team in their past eight games.
After giving up at least 100 points in 18 of their 20 games before the deadline deal, the Wizards have surrendered triple digits only once — and that was when they played their fourth game in five nights in Atlanta, before Nene or Cook had taken their physicals and joined the team.
“We know we’re improving. We don’t just think it. We actually know,” said Trevor Booker, who missed the loss to Detroit with a sore right knee and plantar fasciitis in his right foot and is also questionable against Indiana. “I mean, the biggest thing we need to work on is closing out games. Three of the last four games, we were up the whole game and they wound up coming back and get us in the end. If we would just learn to hold off teams, we’ll have more wins under our belt.”
The Wizards rank 27th in points allowed per game at 100.4 and 22nd in opponents’ field goal percentage (45.6) this season. But since making the deal, the Wizards are limiting teams to just 90.5 points per game (which would be third best in the league) and holding opponents to 43.1 percent shooting (which would be tied with Indiana for eighth). McGee is the NBA’s second-leading shot blocker, but he was a poor man-to-man defender and often left the defense in compromising positions with his gambles. He also was called for goaltending 23 times — more than two NBA teams.
“They needed a veteran. Forget all the other stuff,” Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said of Nene. “They needed a veteran on that team and in that locker room and I think that was a heckuva trade for them.”
With Nene, Booker and Kevin Seraphin, the Wizards have three physical front-line defenders who can guard their position and are quicker on rotations. Seraphin has made the most of his opportunity on the offensive end as well, averaging 10.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots since McGee was traded. He credited Nene’s presence with helping him improve because “he creates space.”
“Defensively, there is no question, he helps us,” Wittman said. “Kevin getting more minutes because of JaVale’s absence has made us a better defensive team, but that’s also a credit to our other guys, too. We’ve really made a positive step that I’m really happy about from a defensive standpoint.”
When asked about the difference that Nene has made on the team defensively, Booker said: “I think it’s more trust. We know guys are going to be there to help us. So you actually want to sit down and play defense. You know if your opponent gets by you, that you’re going to have help there. That brings chemistry together and more trust.”
Wittman said the Wizards are still going through an adjustment period with Nene, as John Wall and Jordan Crawford still learn how to get the ball inside to a big man who is willing to share and make plays. In four games, Nene has averaged 14.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
“He’s got an all-around game. He can score in the post, can pass, set screens, do little things to help the guards out and help himself out,” said Crawford, who has scored 20 or more points in his past six games. “It just hurts that we’re losing and not getting the results out of it. But we’re playing better. Teams that’s coming in to play us know that, now we’re working on executing at the end.”
Nene said the effectiveness would eventually come: “It is a part of the learning process. We’re doing a lot of good things and have to keep working hard.”