Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams planned to drive the baseline and sneak past the Washington Wizards’ defense for a quick layup, but his path was cut off by Nene. When Williams elevated the ball just out of Nene’s long reach, center Marcin Gortat came behind Nene to block the shot.
Gortat had Nene’s back in Friday’s 112-108 overtime win over the Nets at Verizon Center, an example of the connection the Wizards’ 6-foot-11 towers already have formed. Nene gets to go to work offensively on smaller forwards, while Gortat focuses on rebounding and banging with the more physical low-post players. They help each other on defense and look for each other when double-teamed on offense.
The bond was forged long before Coach Randy Wittman decided to start them together for the first time Wednesday in Philadelphia. Nene was among the first Wizards to welcome Gortat when he arrived two weeks ago after a trade with the Phoenix Suns. When Nene learned his new teammate’s car was still in Phoenix, he served as Gortat’s chauffeur to Dulles International Airport for Wizards road trips.
“We came together on all these trips to the airport, and we drove together for 45 minutes,” Gortat said. “We talk a lot about our game, how we’re supposed to play together and fitting perfectly in this team, and I guess we’re just now trying to work this thing out.”
Nene and Gortat haven’t had any problems yet, helping the Wizards (2-3) to consecutive wins since they were paired in the starting lineup and providing some confidence in advance of a three-game road trip that will begin Sunday in Oklahoma City.
In the 57 minutes Gortat and Nene have been on the floor together, the Wizards have outscored opponents by 33 points. Overall, the team has been outscored by 10 points in five games.
“It’s one thing to have two skilled big men in the block. It’s another thing for those big men to play off each other, and that’s big,” forward Martell Webster said. “When you have big guys down there that have a relationship and a chemistry, it makes it a little bit easier to occupy.”
The on-court union of Nene and Gortat was delayed first by Wittman’s decision to bring Gortat off the bench in the season opener against Detroit, which limited them to 35 seconds of action together in the loss to the Pistons. Nene strained his left calf in that game and then missed the next two games, both losses.
But the tandem paid immediate dividends in the Wizards’ first win of the season, when they punished the 76ers’ smallish front line of Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young on both ends of the floor. Early in the Wizards’ 116-102 victory over the 76ers, Nene drove around Young, spun into Hawes, drew a double-team and dropped off a pass to Gortat for an easy layup. Gortat and Nene combined for 29 points, 17 rebounds and three block shots in the win.
Gortat and Nene were also effective against Brooklyn’s more traditional, physical front line of Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett, combining for 35 points, 20 rebounds and three blocks.
“It’s so important having [Nene]. Forget what numbers he puts on the stat sheet. It’s just his smarts on the floor, his know-how, defensively knowing where to be and ready opportunities, his ability to pass,” said Wittman, who has liked what he has seen with the pairing with Gortat. “Marc has been really good .I can’t complain about anything other than him getting his nose smacked around once in a while. But he’s been solid.”
Nene had one of his more passionate games with the Wizards on Friday, when he scored 12 of his season-high 20 points in the final five minutes of regulation to help the team come back from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit and force overtime. He was dancing, nodding his head and howling like never before.
“That’s the player we need him to be to reach our goals,” forward Al Harrington said of Nene. “Hopefully, he can bottle up that emotion and what he did out there and give it to us more often. If he does that, I promise we’re going to win a lot of games.”
Nene credited Gortat for taking some pressure off of him by battling with Lopez and allowing him to be fresh with the game on the line. Gortat recorded his third straight double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds, limited Lopez to five second-half points and kept his teammates motivated and positive.
“One thing Gortat always say, as soon as he came here, ‘Believe in us. Believe in each other.’ And that’s what happen, man,” Nene said. “We start to play the right way, pass the ball, share with each other, make our teammates better. The fire start getting contagious. We got hot.”
Gortat and Nene acknowledge the chemistry is developing quickly, but Nene joked that Gortat owes him $150 — not for the car service to the airport but rather all of the passes he has been giving a wide-open Gortat in the post.
“I already ask him if he takes cash or Visas, MasterCard or checks. He said he doesn’t take checks. He’s afraid they might bounce back,” Gortat said with a laugh. “I think me and Nene are going to be even better. I came here to do the job, the stuff I’m doing, protecting the basket, rebounds, blocks, play some defense and try to use some opportunities in offense. As long as we’re going to win the game, I’m good with that.”
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