His return was somewhat unexpected and his contributions were greatly accepted, but after making his season debut Wednesday night, Nene was dejected. All season, the Washington Wizards’ big man had to be the one to console his distressed teammates after disappointing losses, providing encouraging words to keep them motivated.
But after the Wizards suffered a heartbreaking 101-100 overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks – a gut-wrenching defeat in which they led with 7.3 seconds left before Hawks guard Kyle Korver hit a go-ahead three-pointer, and led again after time expired before referees waved off a Martell Webster tip-in at the buzzer – Nene had little to say.
His left knee wrapped in ice and his sore left foot resting in a bucket of ice, Nene stared at nothing in particular in a stunned silence, wondering how his team could possibly be 0-10.
“It’s hard right now,” said Nene, who put on his No. 42 jersey for the first time this season and scored 12 points in a 20-minute run that offered optimism for how the Wizards will look when the team is finally at full strength with him and John Wall.
Nene brought competence and competitiveness to the floor, allowing the overmatched complementary parts to fit into their appropriate pegs, but his comeback couldn’t guarantee the Wizards’ first win of the season.
After sitting out since the London Olympics with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, Nene played a week or two earlier than expected after participating in just one full, hour-long practice. His body and feet aching afterward, Nene said he felt obligated to get back on the court and support his struggling team – even if he isn’t 100 percent.
“Sometimes, you need to sacrifice something to win or invest in your future,” said Nene, who joined the team from Denver in a three-team trade deadline deal last March. “I know this team took me, like when I got traded, they embraced me hard. I told them, ‘As soon as I get better and I’m able to play, I will help my team.’ That’s not to mean I’m cured or not injured. The injury is still there and I have heart. I have pride and I trust this team. So that’s the reason I’m playing.”
Nene informed reporters of his plans to play against Atlanta, but he forget to give Coach Randy Wittman the heads up. Wittman spoke with Nene before the game as he warmed up on the court at Philips Arena, feeling that the two cannot continue to have such breakdowns in communication. With Nene participating in just two other light practices, Wittman had never known that the 6-foot-11 Brazilian forward would be available to him.
“To get him back means a lot for our team,” Wittman said. “His ability to play. His basketball IQ. He makes other people better. Gets to the free throw line. All of the little intangible things that we’ve been missing.”
Wittman sent Nene to the scorer’s table late in the first quarter with the Wizards down by eight. And after pointing to the sky, Nene was ready to get down to business, hitting an 18-foot jumper within six seconds. In a few brief spurts, the Wizards found out right away the difference that Nene makes as his presence helped them erase some large deficits.
“His foot is still injured, but he’s sacrificing that for the good of the team. I don’t think anybody else on the team would do that. That just shows heart and his passion and his will to win,” rookie Bradley Beal said of Nene. “He’s the captain. He’s the leader of the team and he’s a big asset to us. When he gets 100 percent, we’re going to be that much better.”
Nene only shot 2 of 5 from the floor but was 8 for 10 from the foul line, attacking the rim aggressively and manufacturing some easy scores for a team that has had problems generating offense. He formed a formidable defensive tandem with Emeka Okafor in the seven minutes that they shared the floor in the second half, and his presence also brought out another inspired effort from Kevin Seraphin, who had team highs with 21 points and 10 rebounds in his first start of the season.
“He brings something else inside. When I play with him, they have to worry about me, about him. That becomes difficult,” Seraphin said. “He knows how to play. That’s a good player. He bring everything he know and that’s something good for us. Now, we only need John to come back.”
The Wizards were 7-4 with Nene in the lineup last season, and the team blew double-digit leads in three of the losses. During Wednesday’s loss in Atlanta, they outscored the Hawks, 40-31, with Nene on the floor. He didn’t play in overtime with Wittman committed to keeping him at limited minutes.
“We all know he’s a force to be reckoned with and can change the outcome of a game single-handedly,” Webster said. “He kept us fighting. Kept our minds focused and kept that burning sensation inside, which gave us a chance to take it to overtime.”
Nene was hoping that his premature return on a bum wheel could inspire a win. Instead, he contributed to the most agonizing loss of the season. In the final two minutes of regulation, Nene stole the ball from Josh Smith and drew an offensive foul on another drive, but he also missed a free throw and committed a foul that allowed Devin Harris to tie the game at 90.
“I know it was a sacrifice, but it was no miracle,” Nene said. “I just tried to do my best. Even a step slow, I try to push myself to help my team. We can’t forget; I just got back. I just practiced once. I give my best. I give my all on the floor. That’s all I can say.
“It was close,” he said. “We improved. Slowly, but we improved. Hopefully we improve every day, each game until we win a game. After that, we’re going to take the big gorilla off our back and I think it’s going to go smooth.”