Long after the Washington Wizards concluded Thursday’s practice, Nene emerged from the locker room with a brace covering his left knee and athletic trainer Eric Waters by his side. More than a month after he tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, Nene decided to elevate his recovery training from running on the anti-gravity treadmill to testing his leg on the hardwood.
The 6-foot-11 forward built up a sweat while working on light agility drills, pushing off his knee and bouncing down center court. When he was done, Nene flashed a smile and offered a thumbs up as he continues to stay on target for a return to action early next month.
The Brazilian big man hopes to return to practice sometime next week, according to those close to him, and the Wizards can hardly wait. In an ever-tightening Eastern Conference playoff race, Washington (36-35) is just 8-7 since Nene was sidelined in Cleveland on Feb. 23. The Wizards have lost four of five and only have a 11 / 2-game lead over Charlotte for sixth place with 11 games remaining.
“It feels good to be in this position, knowing that we’re more than likely going to be a playoff team. But at the same time, we can’t get too complacent with that, because we’re not there yet,” Bradley Beal said. “I mean, anything can happen. We could probably — knock on wood — lose the next 11, and then we’re out of it. We just got to be focused.”
The Wizards are leaning heavily on the 20-year-old Beal and 23-year-old John Wall to carry them, but that back-court duo hasn’t played games of consequence in March since both lost in the Elite Eight in their lone college seasons at Florida and Kentucky, respectively.
Similarly, Coach Randy Wittman has been an assistant on playoff staffs in Indiana and Minnesota, but he has never led a franchise into the postseason.
“A lot of guys have never been in this position. Up to this point, they’ve been playing for the summer the last 11 games,” Wittman said. “You’ve got to think differently. You know you’re tired, beat up, but we’re playing for something more than the summer. So mentally, you’ve got to be stronger. We’ve got to learn what it takes to get into the playoffs. Learn what it takes [at] the end of the year.”
For much of the calendar year, the Wizards have oscillated between fourth and sixth in the East, with home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs going to the top four seeds, an accomplishment that has been well within range. But the chances of that occurring have greatly diminished this month as Washington has slid to four games behind Toronto and Chicago, who are 40-31 and tied for the No. 4 seed. Whether because of fatigue or complacency, the Wizards have suddenly started to back into their first playoff berth since 2008.
“If you a dog, you a dog, regardless. If you have that work ethic, you’re going to work, and I feel that a lot of us have that work ethic and we want to be better. We know what we want to do,” said Trevor Ariza, the lone player on the Wizards’ roster with a championship ring. “Sometimes we get away from knowing what we’re doing it for, and maybe that has something to do with being young. But for our team, that’s when the guys that have been there before have to step up and let everybody know that down the stretch, this is where it’s at. We don’t have a lot of time to give away games or have mental breakdowns.”
At 11-8, the Wizards are tied for the fourth-best record in the conference since the all-star break. But they are just 2-5 over that stretch against teams with winning records following Wednesday’s 99-93 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
On Friday, the Wizards will welcome the conference-leading Indiana Pacers to town. Washington lost its two previous meetings with Indiana this season by a combined 47 points.
“It’s just human nature, whether it’s basketball or life in general, you see the finish line, you kind of start slowing up, instead of following through,” said veteran Drew Gooden, who has been around the team only for a month to help fill the void created by Nene's absence. “We kind of see the finish line and kind of lightened up a little bit. But we got to follow through the finish line, and that means finishing this season strong and then going into the playoffs with that same momentum.”
Gooden has been to the playoffs four times in his 12-year career, reaching the NBA Finals with Cleveland in 2007. But he hasn’t appeared in a postseason game or been a part of a playoff push in five years after watching Milwaukee’s playoff run last season on the inactive list. He admits he checks the scoreboard after every loss to see whether the team has lost ground.
With fifth-place Brooklyn and Charlotte playing better, veteran Andre Miller said the Wizards need to develop a greater sense of urgency to avoid a first-round meeting against the Pacers or two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
“I don’t feel pressure. I look at pressure as a state of mind, and if you allow yourself to get out of a comfortable state of mind, that’s when you’re liable to mess up,” Ariza said. “You already know what’s going on. You can’t hide, and it’s something you can’t run from. Know that they right there and they have no problem stepping on our throats, so we have to do the same thing to all of these other teams because at this time, that’s what you got to do. You’ve got to be cutthroat. You got to come out here and take everybody’s head off.”