Before Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman finally put them in the starting lineup together on Wednesday in Philadelphia, Nene and Marcin Gortat had only shared the floor for 35 seconds in a season opening loss to Detroit.
In that short amount of time, Gortat had a layup blocked by Pistons forward Greg Monroe, and the Wizards allowed Pistons guard Chauncey Billups to grab a rebound and make a wide-open three-pointer. Nene was then relieved by Al Harrington, started reaching for his left calf and would go on to miss the next two games, with Gortat starting in his place at center.
When Nene returned on Wednesday night, Wittman kept Gortat at center and put Nene at his preferred power forward position in place of Trevor Booker, and the 6-foot-11 towers punished the 76ers on both ends of the floor in a 116-102 victory. Gortat and Nene combined for 29 points, 17 rebounds and three blocked shots. And, in the 27 minutes that Nene and Gortat shared on the floor, the Wizards outscored Philadelphia by 20 points.
“I liked what I saw,” Wittman said.
The 76ers have an unorthodox front line with a stretch-five in Spencer Hawes and a wiry power forward in Thaddeus Young, and Gortat and Nene were able to dominate them with their size and strength. The obstacle will be much different on Friday against the Brooklyn Nets and their more traditional and physical front line of Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett, Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge,” Gortat said. “Having Brook Lopez, a big, true center. KG, one of the greatest power forwards in this league and in the history of the game and then you have Reggie Evans coming off the bench. It’s going to be a big, big battle. If we’re going to win the inside battle, we have a big chance to win the game.”
The Wizards already got a sample of the Nets in the preseason and Nene complained afterward about some of Evans’s overly physical tactics inside.
“Reggie Evans is super, super physical guy and he plays hard every night. That’s how he lives in this league, that’s how he survives in this league,” Gortat said. “He goes hard every night, getting rebounds and at some point, he’s playing dirty, too.”
Wittman said the Wizards will have to counter the Nets’ size with their speed. Nene and Gortat are both capable of getting on the run. In the second quarter against Philadelphia, Nene got a steal, led a fast break and threw a no-look bounce pass out to Bradley Beal for a breakaway dunk.
“It’s so important having him,” Wittman said. “Forget what numbers he puts on the stat sheet. It’s just his smarts on the floor, his know-how, defensively knowing where to be and ready opportunities, his ability to pass. Those are important things, that maybe he didn’t realize how important it is to us. That was an added bonus. Having him on the floor is huge for us.”
Nene formed an immediate connection with Gortat in the first quarter, when he drove around Young, spun into Hawes, drew a double-team and dropped off a pass to Gortat for an easy layup. “I already told him, they going to double,” Nene said of Gortat. “You just need to be there in the right time and at the right position. That’s what happened. I feel happy for him, because he look for it, he want to help the team and he listen. That’s the good thing when you have veterans in the low block.”
Gortat had season highs with 19 points and 12 rebounds against the 76ers. He was acquired from Phoenix two weeks ago and is still learning the system, but leads the Wizards with 9.8 rebounds and is also contributing 13.8 points and 1.3 blocks. “Marc has been really good,” Wittman said. “I can’t complain about anything, other than him getting his nose smacked around once in a while. But he’s been solid. He knows his role and he goes out and plays his role.”
The Wizards now have two skilled big men in the low post, both capable of hitting mid-range shots and scoring with their backs to the basket. Gortat believes their chemistry will only get better.
“Me and Nene are going to continue to do what we do,” he said. “I’m going to fight for every rebound. Try to block as many shots as I can. He’s going to be the first offensive option, probably, going to the post and attacking from the inside. I’m going to try to play off him and try to find the open spot and just finish around the rim. He’s super unselfish guy and I love to play with a guy like that. He’s going to find me, I’m going to find him and that’s how we’re going to win some basketball games.”
Gortat also said that he’ll have Nene’s back when it comes to taking a pounding inside.
“If we continue to play like that, play hard, play with energy, play with passion, having fun, playing together, we’re going to have a chance to win the game. And then Nene doesn’t have to worry about fighting all the big boys. I’ll do that, so he doesn’t get beat up.”