Nene had dressed for previous games with the Washington Wizards, but it was more for show, more to let his teammates know he was supporting them even if he couldn’t actually set a crushing pick or make a foul line jumper. But Nene offered the first hint on Wednesday night that more was in store when he left an elbow pad and knee pads resting on his chair in the Wizards’ locker room.
Back in the training room before the Wizards took on the Milwaukee Bucks, Nene was getting his injured left foot taped and reserve James Singleton was seated nearby, eagerly anticipating the chance to play with the veteran big man for the first time since he showed up two weeks ago.
“I said, ‘Just your presence on the court is going to make a huge difference. It’s going to make the guys feel better about themselves and it’s going to scare the other team,’ ” Singleton recalled telling Nene.
Like a big brother helping a little brother stand up to a bully, Nene returned from a 10-game absence because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot to make sure that the Wizards wouldn’t lose for the fourth time to Milwaukee. Under a strict restriction to play less than 20 minutes, Nene still made his presence felt by scoring 14 points with four rebounds and helping the Wizards send a crushing blow to the Bucks’ playoff hopes with a 121-112 victory.
“I was able to help the team. It still feel a little bad, still hurt a little bit,” Nene said of his left foot, then lifted his left hand to show some black tape on his left middle finger. “I jammed my finger but it was sweet, this victory.”
Nene had been pushing Coach Randy Wittman and his staff to come back for nearly a week, and they finally relented after he had gone through a few shoot-arounds and practices, doing limited five-on-five work without discomfort.
The Wizards announced that Nene was coming back about 10 minutes before tip-off, but his teammates didn’t know for certain until the veteran big man entered the game for Jan Vesely near the end of the first quarter.
Nene received mild applause from fans as he headed to the scorers’ table, but he quickly showed what the Wizards had been missing when he got the ball at the foul line and fed Cartier Martin for a three-pointer in the left corner.
He showed a little rust from a nearly three week absence as he missed a jump hook badly and also air balled a long jumper in the second half. In the third-quarter, Nene also mistakenly floored Vesely as the two fought for an offensive rebound. But Nene connected on 7 of 12 field goals, making three consecutive jumpers in the third quarter to hold off a Bucks mini-run and back-to-back layups in the fourth quarter to give the Wizards a 99-87 lead.
“It meant a lot. A lot of people say he probably wouldn’t play through injury or he should just finish and sit down, but it showed a lot of respect and courage to us, that he came out and played,” John Wall said. “He just made the game a lot easier, somebody you can go to in the post and, if you cut and look for the ball, he can find you also.”
The Wizards (16-46) are now 3-4 with Nene in uniform, but they have held double-digit second-half leads in three of those losses — to Indiana, Atlanta and Detroit — and were ahead by eight points late in the third quarter in the other loss to Indiana.
After the game, Nene huddled next to Kevin Seraphin, and two spoke quietly as Nene rested his left foot in a bucket of ice. Nene later talked to reporters and said that coming back against the Bucks “was bad because I take his minutes,” pointing his thumb back toward Seraphin.
“To be honest, I didn’t know I was going to play. I just try to test where I was a little bit,” Nene said. “These guys, they step up, when me, [Trevor] Booker and other players was out. They are playing really good and showing what we’re capable of doing and I hope next season, we start doing the thing early, play hard, play together, play D.”
Seraphin has blossomed since the Wizards acquired Nene from Denver in a three-team deal that sent out JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Ronny Turiaf. But Seraphin actually pushed Nene to come back before the season ended, despite averaging 15 points and 7.9 rebounds as the starting center since the trade. The team is just 4-10 in the games that Nene has missed.
“I think that’s a good thing for us,” Seraphin said. “Every time, I ask him, when is he coming back, because I want to see him play. When you got a good player like that, that’s an opportunity for me to learn.”
Seraphin picked up another lesson in media relations when Nene, in a hurry to leave after the game, told reporters to “make it quick” before the interview. After answering a few questions, Nene eased away and said, “Thanks guys.”
“Oh, so you say when it’s done?” said Seraphin, who was acting as if he were a reporter and holding an imaginary recorder.
Nene turned, smiled, then walked out of the locker room.