INDIANAPOLIS — Chris Copeland, the Indiana Pacers’ shot-happy small forward, recognized the mismatch and planned his course of action. He had gone to his crossover and step-back frequently, and he was determined to try the move again on the wing opposite Washington Wizards big man Nene with his team down five points with 40 seconds remaining Saturday night.
But Nene had studied Copeland and anticipated the move. He swiped at Copeland’s crossover and connected with leather, deflecting the ball off Copeland’s leg into the back court. Nene, all 6 feet 11 inches and 250 pounds, chased it down and passed to Paul Pierce. Pierce was fouled, and his two subsequent free throws sealed a 97-90 victory, the Wizards’ second over the Pacers in four nights.
“God gave me talent,” Nene said. “I just used my talent at the right time. When you have versatility, playing inside, outside, and you think, good things happen.”
Nene’s defensive prowess completed an impressive all-around game and halted the shorthanded Pacers’ furious comeback from a 22-point deficit. He scored 17 points to complement team-highs of seven rebounds and five assists, and he was the catalyst for the strong start Coach Randy Wittman craved as the Wizards went 3-1 over a stretch of four games in five nights.
Point guard John Wall paced the Wizards’ five double-digit scorers with 18 points. The Wizards’ bench, which has struggled for much of this young season, contributed 35 points, led by Kevin Seraphin’s 13.
Solomon Hill led the Pacers, losers of six straight, with 28 points. Donald Sloan, who had scored 31 points in the Pacers’ overtime loss to the Wizards on Wednesday, was held to 13 points, and Copeland needed 19 shots to score 14 points.
An agitated Wittman did not mince words in evaluating the Wizards’ performance in their 103-84 loss to the Raptors on Friday night. He yearned for his team to play more physical and lamented the 50-50 battles his team had consistently lost each of the previous two games. He used the four-letter word professional athletes loath to describe his team’s performance: He called them “soft.”
His team responded in the first half Saturday night. The Wizards (5-2) dominated in every facet over the game’s first 24 minutes. They were aggressive and decisive, the polar opposite of their effort in Friday’s debacle. Nene set the tone. The Brazilian was the spark plug in the first quarter as the Wizards ambushed the hosts and built a 36-14 lead by early in the second.
“You have to be able to respond after a poor performance like we had last night,” Wittman said. “There was not an excuse for how we played last night. And the number one thing is how you respond in the next game. I thought our guys were focused. We came out right from the start.”
Nene established himself immediately. He began the first quarter, his most effective of the season, with a left-handed hook shot over Luis Scola. Two possessions later, he got the better of Scola again, going right at the Argentinian big man for two more points. He displayed another wrinkle the next time down, connecting with a step-back, one-legged bank shot.
Recognizing the mismatch, Pacers Coach Frank Vogel switched center Roy Hibbert, one of the NBA’s premier rim protectors, over to Nene in an attempt to slow the Brazilian down. The adjustment proved futile. Opposite the larger — and slower — defender, Nene lured the 7-foot-2 Hibbert out of his comfort zone with a baseline jumper.
Nene later added seven straight points to complete his 15-point first quarter, which was one point better than the entire Pacers team.
“My teammates found me in a good position and they trusted me with my decisions,” said Nene, who credited his start to post-up advice he received from backup point guard Andre Miller during warmups.
Like Wednesday, the Wizards badgered the shorthanded Pacers defensively throughout the first half. Indiana mustered just 35 points on 37.8 percent shooting and committed 12 turnovers. But unlike Wednesday, the Wizards also claimed the rebounding battle from the outset with aggressiveness they did not exhibit in Washington to build a 54-35 halftime advantage.
The Wizards, however, regressed in the second half. Already undermanned without four starters because of injuries, the Pacers were dealt another blow when Hibbert left the game with a bruised left knee at the beginning of the second quarter. But Indiana again proved feisty three days after pushing the Wizards to overtime in Washington, cutting their deficit to three when Hill hit a jump shot with 6 minutes 49 seconds remaining.
And with the final minute winding down, the Pacers had the mismatch they sought to create: Copeland, their best shot creator, handling the ball on the perimeter opposite Nene. But with one swipe the big man salvaged the win.
“That was a big stop,” Wittman said.