When Nene strolled to the scorer’s table with 3 minutes, 12 seconds remaining in the first quarter of Wednesday’s game against Charlotte, the mere sight of the Washington Wizards forward in uniform drew a loud ovation from the Verizon Center crowd, some of whom stood up to welcome back the veteran following a six-week layoff.
Though both the Wizards and their fans ultimately left the arena searching for answers following a 94-88 overtime loss that knocked them down to the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference standings, Nene offered a bit of optimism by scoring 10 points in 17 minutes of solid action.
With just two days of full practice under his belt and Wednesday’s game percolating with a playoff-type atmosphere, Nene’s initial feelings afterward were ones of fatigue and soreness. But like the Wizards, who shook off a flat start to turn a 20-point deficit into a brief two-point lead, Nene’s confidence and performance improved with time.
“For sure, I feel a little tired,” Nene said. “My leg was a little heavy in the beginning. But I adjusted myself in the second half. That is part of the process. I was a little excited. It is supposed to be the most important game of the year. But in the second half, I relaxed myself a little bit, just tried to be me.”
The early nerves surfaced when he missed his first two free throws and then, in the final moments of the first quarter, held the ball too long as the buzzer sounded to end the period. But later, after laying in an easy bucket, Nene flashed a smile of relief while jogging back downcourt.
After knocking down his first jump shot in his seventh minute of action, Nene checked out of the game with the Wizards trailing by 15 points.
In his place came Trevor Booker, who stepped into a starting role during Nene’s 21-game absence. Booker looked anything but ready to give up his spot Wednesday, serving as the Wizards lone source of energy and consistent offense in the first half and paving the way for the 25-6 run that pulled them back into contention.
“I guess he needs Nene to feel that breath on his back,” said Marcin Gortat, who finished with a team-high 27 points and 14 rebounds. “Tonight he played great. He was outstanding for us. He had a lot of energy, he was hustling. You’ve got to play like this every day.”
Entering Wednesday’s game, the lingering question was how would Nene’s return affect the minutes previously spread among Booker, Gortat and Drew Gooden. The unit proved strong in the post, outscoring the Bobcats 50-28 in the paint to help the Wizards counter their 1-for-15 performance from the three-point line.
While Booker was nearly perfect in 30 minutes with 16 points on 4-for-5 shooting from the field and 8-for-8 from the foul line, it was Gooden who played most of the fourth quarter. Nene returned early in the fourth period, knocking down a couple baseline jumpers while showing off his interior passing with a nice dish to Gortat for a dunk. His night ended with about five minutes left in regulation.
“(Booker’s) gonna have his minutes and obviously when Nene gets going his minutes will go up, too,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “I’ll play it depending on matchups and things of that nature. Al (Harrington) will have a chance to play too.”
Nene alluded to the notion that a 16-20 minute cap was placed on him Wednesday and could continue going forward, depending on how his knee responds and develops.
“In the playoffs, it’s a different thing, but until the season is over, I am going to be around 16 (minutes), when I feel better, 20, and then we talk,” Nene said.
Following Thursday’s morning practice, the Wizards will fly to Orlando for a Friday contest before flying back home for a Saturday game against Milwaukee.
“I thought he did fine” Wittman said of Nene. “For being out seven weeks, he was a little rusty, a little winded. But you can tell a big difference that he makes for us. It’s good to have him back.”