Wizards vs. Bulls: Nene sparks Washington to win in his return to starting lineup
CHICAGO — Nene backed into Joakim Noah, watched as Noah dropped on his backside, then spun toward the basket for a powerful dunk and glared while towering over the Chicago Bulls center. The Brazilian big man then came down to the other end of the court and slapped a layup attempt by D.J. Augustin out of bounds. After Bradley Beal stole a pass from Noah, Martell Webster drove and dished to Nene, who threw down another vicious dunk.
The Washington Wizards didn’t need that 40-second sequence Monday night at United Center to understand the difference that Nene makes when he’s on the floor. But with the Wizards struggling to get wins, Coach Randy Wittman determined that the team could no longer keep its most talented and versatile forward coming off the bench.
With Nene able to play more minutes on his troublesome right Achilles’ tendon, Wittman put him back in the starting lineup for the first time in more than a month. Nene responded by tying John Wall with a game-high 19 points in 36 minutes to lead the Wizards to a 102-88 victory over the Bulls.
“It was time. I wanted to change things up,” Wittman said.
Washington (17-19) moved into a tie with Chicago for fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings with its seventh victory in its past nine road games, all of those wins coming against teams with losing records. The wire-to-wire victory also snapped a two-game skid and should serve as a confidence builder for the team as it prepares to host the two-time defending champion Miami Heat on Wednesday.
“It was terrific. I think we did a great job of moving the ball, everybody finding each other, making shots, making layups and finishing at the rim,” said Bradley Beal (13 points), one of six players to score in double figures for the Wizards, who shot 52 percent. “We did a great job of sticking to our game plan and not worrying about what they were doing. Making them guard us. We think we’re a pretty good team as well.”
Putting Nene in the starting lineup wasn’t the only change for Wittman, who reduced his rotation to eight players. Webster, Trevor Booker and Garrett Temple were the only reserves to get any playing time as Wittman refused to hand out token minutes to players such as Otto Porter Jr., Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely.
Nene started for the first time since a Dec. 6 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in which he left early in the third quarter after developing some soreness in his right Achilles’ tendon. He missed four games to rest, then returned to come off the bench while adhering to a strict minute restriction over the past 12 games.
“I was on the bench to make my Achilles’ better, and he tried to control my minutes,” Nene said of Wittman. “I’m happy. Not only to be back in my normal position, but to see Booker, because Booker been playing great. So that’s the amazing thing, to make somebody else better.”
The Wizards had gone 7-9 with Booker starting, but they had also started this month by losing five of their first seven games to slide below the Bulls in the standings. They also allowed other teams, such as Brooklyn and New York, to start breathing down their necks.
In the past two months, the Bulls have lost former league most valuable player Derrick Rose to a right knee injury and traded all-star forward Luol Deng to Cleveland in a cost-saving measure. Despite the changes, Chicago entered the game as one of the hottest teams in the NBA with five consecutive wins.
“Win, lose, draw, you’ve got to play all out with that intensity each game. You can’t have segments of it,” Wittman said. “That was a complete game. That’s all we talked about the last two days. You come in with an effort like that, we lose, you know what? We shower, we get on the bus, you go to the next city. But you continue to grow as a team.”
The Wizards scored the first eight points of the game and went into halftime leading 56-43 despite missing seven free throws. Chicago opened the third quarter on an 18-9 run and got within four points when Bulls reserve Taj Gibson made a floater, but the Wizards had the proper response when Booker made a jump shot and Trevor Ariza and Webster both hit three-pointers to go back up 73-61.
“We knew this game meant something,” Temple said after scoring a season-high 10 points, including an off-the-glass, buzzer-beating three-pointer that sent the Wizards into the final period leading by 10. “We need to get a win. We needed to stop the bleeding.”
The Wizards let their lead get chopped to 87-82 in the fourth quarter when Augustin made a three-pointer and added two free throws with 5:28 left. Beal, who had been struggling for much of the game and even missed an easy layup in the third quarter, calmly buried a jumper from the right corner. Wall, who also finished with a team-high seven assists, then stole an inbounds pass from Gibson and knocked down a jumper. Beal then pushed the lead back to 12 points when he hit his only three-pointer of the game from the right corner.
Nene added an exclamation point to the victory when he threw down another punishing dunk to send fans at United Center headed toward the exits.
“We came out. We battled. We fought our butts off,” Booker said. “When we play like that, it’s going to be tough to beat us.”