The Washington Post

For the Wizards, it’s a big man’s game now

Wizards forward Nene, left, scored 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds in Washington’s Game 1 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Sunday. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

The Wizards are back to relying on their big men. Forget the highly drafted guards who are supposed to be the team’s core; they provide regular-season entertainment. The postseason belongs to the real men underneath, the gritty performers who throw elbows and sweat their way to loose balls.

Washington’s frontcourt was the key to the Wizards’ first Game 1 victory in a playoff series since 1986. Their 102-93 beat down of the Chicago Bulls on Sunday shows the Wizards aren’t content just making the playoffs for the first time in six years.

Guards John Wall and Bradley Beal, supposedly the soul of the offense, converted only 7 of 25 shots Sunday. The Wizards’ offense went through the frontcourt. Forwards Nene and Trevor Ariza and center Marcin Gortat combined for 57 points.

The frontcourt starters have playoff experience with former teams, and Nene especially showed he was ready for the big stage with 24 points and eight rebounds. The 11-year veteran controlled the game and outdueled Chicago’s Joakim Noah. Nobody expected that, but Nene has always been Washington’s true leader.

Wall was Washington’s first overall pick in 2010 and he’s the franchise player for the long term, but the now belongs to Nene. That’s why the team was so patient during his six-week rehab from a sprained knee. Before his injury, Washington was 60-61 with Nene and 8-34 without the Brazilian, who came to Washington in March 2012. The Wizards were able to go 12-9 down the stretch of the regular season without Nene, but they always knew his return was needed to make a playoff run.

Nene played in four of the final five games to get back up to speed for the playoffs, and his 14.3 points per game average in that stretch mirrored his season average (14.2). The Wizards can’t survive the down-and-dirty Bulls without the frontcourt grinding away. On Sunday, Nene took charge early and the backcourt mostly watched. Reserve Andre Miller pitched in with 10 big points, but Wall’s 16 points seemed to overstate his impact on the game.

Wall and Beal missed their combined three 3-point attempts. Instead, it was Ariza taking advantage of his chances by hitting 3 of 5 from outside and scoring 18 points overall. Ariza has played for six different teams in his career, but his experience is valued by the Wizards.

Chicago will surely refocus to counter Washington’s frontcourt, making it vital Wall and Beal recover. If Washington’s guards thrive in Game 2, Chicago won’t have a solution. If the Wizards’ backcourt fails, the big men must prove invincible again.

Rick Snider has covered sports in Washington since 1978.



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