Nene’s value to the Washington Wizards goes beyond the angry one-handed dunk, the perfect handoff to Bradley Beal for a critical jumper, the timely rebounds and the decisive free throws he contributed in Wednesday’s 113-107 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
With Nene back after missing the previous four games because of right Achilles’ tendinitis and Beal returning from a nine-game absence two nights before to help Washington end a 10-game losing streak in New York and four-game slide overall, the Wizards (11-13) left New York much more confident than when they arrived. In reuniting with its most talented big man and promising shooting guard — even though both players have to adhere to minute limits until fully recovered — Washington is again starting to feel optimistic about what it can accomplish with a nearly full roster.
“Gives us more attitude,” Martell Webster said after the Wizards’ two-game sweep in New York.
The Wizards are 10-7 with Nene in the lineup this season, but that record is somewhat skewed because he wasn’t around to finish two of those losses. Nene was ejected in the fourth quarter of an overtime loss in Oklahoma City and left because of soreness in his troublesome right heel in the third quarter of an overtime loss to Milwaukee.
When asked what Nene brings to the table, Coach Randy Wittman replied, “Everything. It’s just how he plays, his basketball IQ, his passing ability, the ability to score when he needs to. He adds confidence. Anytime you have an older guy who has played as many years as he has. I know he is always talking to those guys, and when you don’t have that, you feel lonely when he’s not out there.”
Until Beal’s heroics against the Knicks, the Wizards had lost eight consecutive games in which they didn’t have Nene. The Brazilian big man got hurt in the season opener and has had to take two breaks to get treatment and reduce the discomfort. Nene had a difficult time watching his teammates struggle in his absence.
“It’s hard for me because I always look for the best for the team,” Nene said. “When we lose, I feel the pain. When we win, I still look at what we can do to play better. I always punch myself. That’s the way I grow up, and it’s going to continue.”
The Wizards’ woes without Nene have upset fans who believe he is unreliable or, even worse, a malingerer. While his teammates would like to see him on the floor more, they also don’t want him to do further damage that could keep him out longer.
“Can’t listen to what other people say. They may say he’s nursing injuries,” Beal said of Nene’s critics. “But if you’re injured, you’re injured, regardless. You don’t know how he’s feeling or what kind of pain he’s in, so who are you to judge him? We never do that in this locker room.”
Center Marcin Gortat added that he trusts Nene when he tells him his body is too banged up to play. John Wall has always tried to encourage Nene to give the Wizards whatever he can because his presence makes a difference even in small doses: Nene had 17 points in just 22 minutes against Brooklyn.
“I think just seeing him out there, our team gets happy for it,” Wall said.
Nene has heard complaints about his durability and dependability from outsiders but said he doesn’t let it faze him.
“It don’t really hurt, because the people who need to know, they know. And the people who is jealous, who look for something negative, they always going to say something,” Nene said. “The good thing is, I’m feeling better. I’m not 100 percent, for sure. I took this game to see where I was, and it’s almost there, but there are still a couple of things for me to do to feel better.”
The Wizards will be without Al Harrington and Glen Rice Jr. for the next few weeks as they recover from surgeries on their right knee and right wrist, respectively. But with Webster regaining his confidence while filling in for Trevor Ariza and Beal and Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely and Kevin Seraphin taking advantage of Nene’s absence, the Wizards are showing they have the talent and are developing the depth to be competitive in the pungent Eastern Conference.
“When they’re full-on, they’re a tough team to play,” Nets forward Kevin Garnett said. “Everybody on their team has gotten better. So it wasn’t like we were playing Swiss cheese.”
Wall believes health will determine how far the Wizards will go in their quest to end a five-year playoff drought.
“That’s the biggest thing I can say, really: When we had our success, we were fully healthy,” Wall said. “Not to take anything from our team, we know we can still compete with the best of them when everybody is here. We just don’t feel that sense of urgency to close out those games as strongly as when we have our whole team.”
When asked how the Wizards avoid getting complacent after pulling off two closely contested road wins, Webster said, “By staying humble but staying very, very aggressive. We haven’t done anything yet. We haven’t made any noise. We’re not even at .500. We’ve got to get to .500 and play above that and make noise. But right now, it’s just baby steps.”