NEWARK — For the first time in nearly 10 years, Nene stepped into an NBA arena and he wasn’t representing the Denver Nuggets or wearing the No. 31. The last week has been an emotional and reflective one for Nene, with him being uprooted from the only NBA franchise he has known and being thrust from a team with playoff aspirations to another headed toward the lottery.
Surrounded by an unfamiliar set of teammates, in an unusual red uniform with a horizontal stripe and with hip-hop mogul and New Jersey Nets co-owner Jay-Z seated courtside, Nene didn’t waste any time settling in. On the first possession of the Washington Wizards’ 108-89 win over the Nets on Wednesday night at Prudential Center, Nene caught the ball at the foul line and sprinted around Nets center Shelden Williams for an easy layup.
The rest of the evening, Nene showed why the Wizards added him to the roster at the trade deadline in a three-team deal. He set solid screens to get his teammates open looks, played effective defense in the low post, and finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot in the decisive victory.
“It’s been crazy days. I was a little nervous for this first game. I just tried to work hard and try to have fun,” Nene said. “That was really good, man. I know God have a plan and I know He will bless this team and we’re going to do a lot of good things.”
With the win, which concluded a season-long, six-game trip, the Wizards (11-34) exacted some revenge for an embarrassing season-opening loss at Verizon Center in which they blew a 21-point lead. But the Wizards have a different coach and a substantially different roster from opening night, following the trade of Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Ronny Turiaf for Nene — and the decision by the organization to shut down Andray Blatche and Rashard Lewis, two of the opening night starters, as they deal with health problems.
The Wizards didn’t appear to have a problem without them, as Nene brought plenty to the table. He got his teammates open looks with screens, hit cutters with passes, scrapped for rebounds, kept plays alive and communicated on defense. On his 10th rebound, Nene fought his way inside and simply batted the ball out to Chris Singleton, allowing the Wizards to milk time off the clock.
“He knows how to play basketball,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “Nene has been in the league for 10 years, he’s a proven veteran that has played in high-stakes games. . . . I’m so happy for him, because first time being traded is always hard. I remember my first time and I thought the world was coming to an end. You get through it and sometimes it works to the best for you anyway.”
Jordan Crawford scored a game-high 23 points for the Wizards but didn’t play the entire fourth quarter as Wittman decided to rely on veteran Roger Mason Jr. for the critical stretch. Mason connected on four three-pointers and finished with 16 points.
Kevin Seraphin had played well in three starts while the Wizards waited for Nene to join the team. He was forced to come off the bench Wednesday to make way for the new starter, but his production didn’t decline with Nene around. He had 12 points and even shared the floor for lengthy stretches with Nene, giving the Wizards a beefy, physically imposing front line to clog the middle.
“I enjoyed this game,” Trevor Booker said after scoring six points and grabbing nine rebounds. “Nene down there banging. Kevin down there banging. I’m down there banging. Feeling pretty good. Feeling pretty confident about this team.”
John Wall had 12 points and eight assists, burying a pull-up jumper to give the Wizards a 72-64 lead and forcing Nets Coach Avery Johnson to call a timeout with 5 minutes 18 seconds left in the third quarter. Before the ball was inbounded, both all-star point guard Deron Williams (17 points) and Johnson were ejected for arguing calls, allowing the Wizards to pad the lead and finish comfortably.
The Wizards will return home on Thursday to host the Indiana Pacers in their first home game since a double-digit loss to Portland on March 10. They finished the trip 2-4, with the other victory coming in New Orleans on the night they completed the deal for Nene, who is already making a difference.
“It was fun,” Wall said. “It takes a lot of pressure off the guards if you can give somebody the ball in the low post that can score and also pass. We had to get used to cutting because we know we might get the ball back. Before, we just cut nonchalantly because nine times out 10, you wasn’t getting the ball back.”
On opening night, Blatche introduced himself as the team captain and then complained about not getting enough touches in the low post, setting an ominous tone for the season. Wittman decided to shut down Blatche until he got in better shape, leaving him behind on trips. In Wednesday’s official box score, Blatche was listed as “Not With Team — Conditioning.”
Nene said he was put at ease before the game, as he ran on the treadmill and watched NBA TV’s series on the Nuggets, “The Association.” Watching the show allowed him to move forward with his new team.
“That give me peace, because I know everything I did. I work hard and I know myself,” he said. “This is a new beginning. After 10 years, I have to turn the page. I’m ready to turn the page.”