When news emerged that Nene had sprained his left medial collateral ligament, the Washington Wizards’ playoff aspirations appeared toward a Jenga-style collapse, the absence of a key piece bringing down everything else. The Brazilian big man was expected to miss six weeks, and to that point, the Wizards had gone 8-34 when he’d been sidelined.
Two weeks since the injury was diagnosed, Nene still moves around gingerly, propped up with the assistance of crutches, but his team has done anything but stumble. The Wizards are 5-2 without the 6-foot-11 forward, thanks to the elevated play of Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat, the all-star production of John Wall, a more aggressive Bradley Beal and improved bench play from recently acquired veterans Andre Miller and Drew Gooden.
“No complaints,” Coach Randy Wittman said, when asked how his team has responded. “I think they’ve went on without missing a step. That’s what you have to do. You can’t, ‘Woe is me.’ We’ve got to believe we can go out and play that way and I think that’s what we’ve done.”
What the Wizards lost in size, they have compensated with a more explosive and free flowing offense. Since Feb. 25, Washington is averaging 111.9 points while shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 43.9 percent from three-point range over that span, which would rank fifth, fifth and third, respectively, in the league. It also has an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 112.7, which is third best behind Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
For the season, the Wizards are 16th in scoring offense (100.7 points), 12th in field goal percentage (45.6), second in three-point percentage (38.7) and 17th in offensive efficiency (103).
The Wizards’ recent Nene-less run goes beyond a desire to prove to themselves — and also a slew of doubters — that they can compete without their most talented big man. Washington (33-30) is currently just a half-game ahead of Brooklyn for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and 3½ games in front of the seventh-place Charlotte Bobcats, their opponent Wednesday at Verizon Center. They will host the Nets on Saturday.
“I think we just know what our goal is: getting a playoff spot,” Wall said. “And you’ve got teams like Brooklyn and Charlotte and those guys are winning games and they’re right on our tail. If you lose a couple, you can see yourself as the seventh or eighth seed and playing the [Heat] or the [Indiana] Pacers” in the first round.
Nene isn’t able to travel with the team, but he sends text messages to teammates after wins and provides input at practices and games at home. “He’s here giving his opinion,” Wittman said. “I told him I want his opinion. Watch the game. Watch the guys. Give your input whether its halftime, after a game, after practice.”
A collective effort was going to be required to compensate for Nene’s scoring, defensive presence and intelligence and the Wizards are getting support from several different sources.
Ariza struggled with foul trouble and his shot in Miami, but he has still led the Wizards in scoring over the past seven games, averaging 21.7 points — 6.6 more points than his season average — and shooting 60.4 percent from beyond the three-point line. Gortat has demanded and received touches and is averaging 17.4 points, 4.7 more than his season average. Wall has three games with at least 20 points and three others with 10 or more assists .
“I think each one of us found a comfort zone. Each one of us found places where it feels comfortable on the court. And we’re all sharing the ball,” Gortat said. “We’re helping each other, communicating. I would say the schedule is better for us than at the beginning of the season. That’s one of the reasons we finally got this winning streak and everything.”
Beal is also averaging 18.1 points, but Gooden’s emergence has been somewhat surprising since he was out of the league since Milwaukee waived him through the amnesty provision and rarely played last season. Gooden, a 12-year veteran who is playing on his second 10-day contract, has scored in double figures in each of the past three games, taking advantage of the minutes that have come while Kevin Seraphin is also sidelined with swelling in his right knee.
“I thought that’s what I was supposed to do,” Gooden said after scoring a season-high 15 points in Miami. “I don’t [do] what people expected I was going to do, but whenever I had the opportunity ever in this league — besides last year, when I didn’t get an opportunity — I always make the best of it.”
Gooden has teamed with Miller, Al Harrington and Martell Webster to give the Wizards a more stable and competent second unit, which is contributing 28.9 points per game – up from the season average of 24.9, which ranks second worst in the NBA.
“We all have to play,” Gortat said. “We have to play our best. Each one of us has to step up and play better. Every win is giving us more confidence and we are hoping to get to that third spot that we want to get. We just got to keep grinding.”