The Washington Wizards dodged the worst-case scenario as it relates to Nene’s left knee on Monday but their plans to claim an advantageous playoff position in the Eastern Conference were damaged when an MRI exam revealed the Brazilian big man has a sprained left medial collateral ligament.
Nene will miss approximately six weeks, according to a brief statement released by the team, and could possibly return for the final week of the regular season.
He came up limping midway through the third quarter of the Wizards’ 96-83 victory in Cleveland on Sunday as he attempted to run back on defense after a collision with Cavaliers guard Jarrett Jack. After fouling Cavaliers center Spencer Hawes to stop the action, Nene collapsed near the Wizards’ bench before being assisted by head athletic trainer Eric Waters. Unable to walk, Nene hopped on one leg through a tunnel toward the locker room. According to witnesses, he left Quicken Loans Arena with the assistance of crutches and boarded the team flight to Washington in a wheelchair.
The Wizards feared Nene had suffered a ligament tear, which would’ve cost him this season and possibly part of next season. Nene is averaging 14.2 points and 5.8 rebounds, helping the Wizards to a 28-28 record and fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Wizards have struggled in Nene’s absence, losing six of seven games he missed earlier this season with an injured right Achilles’ tendon.
“We know Nene is probably going to be out for a while,” Bradley Beal said after the win in Cleveland. “It’s tough. He’s one of our best players, and for him to go down, it really doesn’t feel good but we have to continue to move on, continue to play. We have guys who are more than capable of stepping up and into their roles and hopefully moving forward, we can continue to stay on track.”
Since returning from the Achilles’ injury on Dec. 18 in Brooklyn, Nene played in 33 consecutive games — his longest string since joining the Wizards — and appeared to be getting better and stronger with time. He matched his career high with 30 points in Sunday’s 94-93 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, including the winning dunk with three-tenths of a second left. The Wizards are 21-16 this season with Nene in the starting lineup.
Nene, 31, averaged 15.7 points in 32.1 minutes in 21 games since a playing-time restriction was lifted. He has averaged 30.1 minutes per game this season, his most since the 2010-11 season.
Nene’s time in Washington has mostly been plagued by injury. Plantar fasciitis contributed to him missing 35 games in his first 11 / 2 seasons with the Wizards since arriving from Denver in March 2012 as part of a three-team trade. But he has proven to be the team’s most indispensable player not named John Wall: Washington is 8-34 overall when Nene has not played.
The Wizards have won a season-high three in a row but can hardly find comfort in their current position. They are 11 / 2 games behind Chicago for the fourth seed but also 11 / 2 games ahead of the eighth and final playoff spot.
Washington has the league’s weakest schedule over the final 26 games of the regular season, facing just eight teams with winning records. If Nene returns on schedule, he would be available for the Wizards’ final five games, beginning on April 9 against Charlotte. But he has never been one to rush back from injury and takes his time to let his body fully heal before getting back on the court. A source close to Nene said he will work hard to return with the team attempting to end a six-year playoff drought.
Kevin Seraphin or Trevor Booker likely will start when the Wizards host Orlando on Tuesday at Verizon Center. Booker has started 19 games this season, with the Wizards going 7-12 in those games. Veteran Al Harrington and seldom-used reserve Chris Singleton also will possibly get increased playing time with the Wizards forced to play smaller. With Nene sidelined, Marcin Gortat, who also is 6 feet 11, is the only player on the roster taller than 6-10.
“He’s been playing some great basketball, so that was tough to see,” Harrington said of Nene’s injury. “Hopefully, we can get him back sooner than later, but guys got to step up. I think we got enough guys that can do that. At the end of the day, we’ve got to win. The teams behind us are heating up. We know this is not going to be no cakewalk. This is a situation where we might play the last game of the season and it’ll actually mean something. We got to continue to build as a team and be ready for those type of challenges.”
The timing of Nene’s injury is particularly unfortunate because it comes a few days after the Wizards sacrificed former lottery pick Jan Vesely, a 7-footer, to acquire veteran backup point guard Andre Miller at the trade deadline. They have a roster spot available after sending Eric Maynor to Philadelphia in the three-team deal but few quality big men are available in free agency or the NBA Development League.
According to a person with knowledge of the situation, the Wizards are “unlikely” to sign a player to a 10-day contract before Tuesday’s game. They are considering four or five big men, including Drew Gooden, Lou Amundson, DeSagana Diop and Justin Hamilton, the source said, while adding, “Nobody is going to replace what Nene provides.”