When the Washington Wizards opened the season in Cleveland with John Wall sidelined because of a stress injury in his left knee and Nene nursing a sore left foot, they expected — or perhaps hoped — that Wall and Nene would be ready when the teams met for a late-December rematch at Verizon Center.
Only half of that expectation was met, as Nene took the floor for his second start Wednesday against the Cavaliers. Wall remains out indefinitely and the point guard position has become a revolving door for unproven veterans, a shooting guard in disguise and now a training camp cut who got called back after a stint in the NBA Development League.
Shelvin Mack, Wall’s primary backup last season, made his first career start in place of leading scorer Jordan Crawford, who was benched for a violation of team rules. But after developing a groin injury in the fourth quarter, Mack was forced to watch his new old team lose its eighth straight game, 87-84, against Cleveland.
“It’s a little different playing 40 minutes in the D-League, and 40 minutes in the NBA,” Mack said after scoring six points and handing out seven assists in his return to the team that drafted him 34th overall in the 2011 NBA draft and released him 16 months later.
With Mack sidelined, Coach Randy Wittman was forced to lean on another D-League call-up, Garrett Temple, for the final minutes and he had a turnover and missed a potential tying three-pointer in the final 79 seconds.
The Wizards (3-23) find a way to lose, no matter who is uniform, and no matter how much Nene impacts the game in his limited time on the floor. Still playing restricted minutes because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot, Nene had 16 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots and the Wizards outscored Cleveland by 25 points in his roughly 26 minutes on the floor.
Afterward, Wittman expressed hope that Nene’s playing time would continue to increase, while Nene appeared disgusted once again after the Wizards lost at home to another NBA bottom feeder after he openly questioned their heart and professionalism on Saturday after back-to-back losses to Detroit.
“I try to take the right shot, look to the right guy and I play smart. I play to win,” Nene said. “I see, try to go more and more and more, until I play my normal time. I need to live day by day. How I feel next, how I feel tomorrow, how I feel next game.”
Nene’s message about professionalism was apparently lost on Crawford, who was late for the morning shootaround. He still played 26 minutes and was in for the entire fourth quarter in place of the ineffective Bradley Beal, who was held to just two points and missed all five of his shot attempts.
Crawford, who had started the previous eight games at point guard after A.J. Price broke his right hand, scored 17 points but missed a potential tying three-pointer as time expired and wasn’t in the locker room to discuss the game with reporters.
He gave the Wizards a 79-73 lead with 6 minutes 19 seconds remaining, but they went more than four minutes without a field goal, committing two turnovers that allowed the Cavaliers to score nine unanswered points and take an 82-79 lead when Dion Waiters made a three-pointer in front of the Wizards’ bench.
Emeka Okafor had his second consecutive double-double, with 17 points and 10 rebounds, and he made a layup and free throw to tie the score. But Cavaliers second-year forward Tristan Thompson (15 points, 12 rebounds) somehow got his missed dunk to roll around the rim and fall in. He then made the free throw that proved to be the difference.
“It’s frustrating,” said Okafor, who added four blocks, “but the fact that we’re in every single game, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Mack had just finished playing a game for the D-League’s Maine Red Claws and was prepared to work out for the Boston Celtics when he got a phone call last Saturday asking him to return the Wizards. After one practice, Mack was back in the fold as if he had never left — except he had moved up considerably in the depth chart from training camp, with Price injured and Jannero Pargo no longer around. He got an opportunity only because Pargo’s replacement, Shaun Livingston, was waived.
With a point guard on the floor capable of getting the players into their proper sets, the Wizards scored 17 points in roughly six minutes. But the Wizards were irresponsible with the ball, committing 20 turnovers that led to 19 points for the Cavaliers. And Mack also had a hard time keeping up with Kyrie Irving, who scored a game-high 26 points and Cleveland (7-23) to its second straight win despite missing four free throws in the fourth quarter.
“It’s different, especially the first game back, guarding Kyrie. He’s way different than guarding any other D-League guard,” Mack said. “But it’s a great experience for me. I came out and played hard. We just didn’t get the win.”