Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Nene made 29 of 217 shots attempted from 16 to 24 feet from the 2002-03 to 2007-08 seasons. He actually made 49 of 217. This version has been corrected.
Nene grinned, grabbed the bottom of the net and gleefully swung side to side while waiting for his turn during a post-practice mid-range shooting competition on Thursday with teammate Trevor Booker. Every time Booker made a shot, he moved aside, only to watch in frustration as Nene connected and laughed. Booker held his own but eventually had to concede defeat to the physically imposing Brazilian big man with the stunningly smooth jumper.
Nene’s defensive aggressiveness, savvy passing and wily gamesmanship has vaulted the Washington Wizards to a two-games-to-none lead in their best-of-seven series against the Chicago Bulls, with Game 3 on Friday at Verizon Center. But that jump shot — which Nene spent about 30 minutes mastering with Booker after practice — has repeatedly demoralized the Bulls’ vaunted defense and flummoxed NBA defensive player of the year Joakim Noah.
“I take what they are giving to me,” said Nene, who is averaging a team-best 20.5 points on 63.3 percent shooting in the first two games. “I’m blessed to have good teammates to find me in the good position to have the post game, outside game, good vision. I’m going to do what the game gives me to make my team better.”
The Bulls have wisely focused on blitzing John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards’ top two scorers in the regular season, in pick-and-roll situations to force the ball out of their hands. In turn, Wall and Beal have wisely worked the ball out to the usually open Nene, who has connected on 7 of 13 shots (54 percent) — including 4 for 4 from the right elbow — between 16 and 24 feet. In the regular season, Nene shot 46.7 percent (56-120) from that distance, which ranked fifth highest among NBA forwards with at least 100 attempts.
Nene scored 24 points, one shy of his playoff career high, in Game 1 and made seven field goals outside of 10 feet, the most of any game in his career. And, in overtime of Game 2, Nene opened the extra frame by burying a jumper on the left side of the foul line and later hit another from the same spot, with Noah hounding him.
“When you’re playing at this level, teams are going to take certain things away and I don’t want our guys predetermining anything,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “Whatever adjustments are made by them, we move the ball, make the simple play and something else is going to be open. My main thing to our games, if we work to get an open shot, we have to take it. Have to take it. I want us to have confidence to shoot the ball.”
Nene entered the NBA as a bruising interior player who chose to punish the rim with ferocious slams and never ventured much beyond the painted area. Andre Miller, who played with Nene for parts of four seasons in Denver, said he could always make the shot, but rarely had a chance to take it on a team built around Carmelo Anthony’s scoring.
“Sometimes, the ball got stuck a little bit,” Miller said. “You know, we had Carmelo handling the ball. He had to kind of navigate his way under the basket for easy baskets and rebounds, but he’s always been a consistent shooter. That’s something I know he can do. Once he hits one, he hits a couple and gets into a rhythm, he’s pretty good for the rest of the game. It’s big for us.”
From 2002-03 to 2007-08, Nene attempted 217 shots from 16 to 24 feet and made just 49 (22.5 percent). In his past six seasons, Nene has made 246 shots from that distance, attempting 581 (42.3 percent).
An instinctive, agile and skilled player, Nene could overpower an opponent physically or play with finesse. But he eventually decided to spend his summers working on developing more consistency with his jumper because he hadn’t fully established a reliable go-to move or counter move in the low post.
Nene started to take more jumpers in his last three full seasons in Denver, especially after Anthony was traded to the New York Knicks, but he still felt somewhat stifled offensively with former Nuggets coach George Karl urging him to make his presence felt inside.
When he arrived in Washington in March 2012 — in a deadline deal that shipped out JaVale McGee and Nick Young and initiated the team’s pivot from rebuilding toward the moment the franchise is currently experiencing — Nene realized the Wizards would use him differently.
“I didn’t have the jump shot that I have right now. I been working the jump shot the last five years, six years, you know in the summer,” Nene said. “I didn’t have the opportunity in Denver, because you know we have different players and my function was different. But over here, soon as I got here, the coach, the guys they said, ‘Do you.’ They give me the kind of confidence to take the shots. You feel more like, ‘Okay, I know I can do it.’ Because it’s not about, ‘Are you going to miss?’ It’s they trust you to take the shot. That’s what has been happening right now.”
Nene’s ability to spread the floor has also given him the chance to dribble and attack the rim, with his emphatic dunk over Carlos Boozer setting the tone for the entire series. His contributions have also been subtle, such as using his long arms and wide frame to cut off the passing lanes for Noah, the Bulls’ leader in assists, to create turnovers. And late in Game 2, Nene stole a jump ball in the final seconds by grabbing Taj Gibson’s arm with his right hand and securing the possession.
“There’s no shortcut,” Nene said. “Our mentality is to maintain our focus, maintain the way we’re playing, fix our weaknesses and what we’ve done wrong and we’ll be fine. I hope each game, we get better and improve.”
Wall has referred to Nene as the team’s “X-factor,” which seems like an odd word choice with Nene currently the team’s highest-paid player at $13 million. He also goes by, “Big Moose.”
“I just have a lot of nicknames,” said Nene, who was born Maybyner Hilario before legally changing his name to the nickname he got as a child, the Portuguese word for baby.
When he was called “the key” two years ago, Nene responded, “Who’s the door?”
If he can continue his torrid shooting, Nene just might help the Wizards unlock the franchise’s third playoff series win since 1979.