CHICAGO — Nene sat at the locker by the showers exhausted. Ice packs were tied to his right shoulder and both knees. More ice filled a vast green container in front of his chair, soaking his feet. The Washington Wizards big man remained there for several minutes, treating the aches that come with shutting down Pau Gasol, one of basketball’s premier big men, at one end and facilitating offense with the aptitude few other 6-foot-11 men possess at the other.
Nene provided the two-way prowess for 30 minutes in the Wizards’ 105-99 triumph over the Chicago Bulls in Washington’s first meaningful game at United Center since it knocked its nemesis out of the postseason last April. It was his best all-around performance of the season, one that featured eight assists and was capped off with the headiest of plays: a charge on Gasol with 2 minutes 16 seconds remaining and the Wizards nursing a nine-point lead that deflated the frenzied building and provoked a fist pump from Coach Randy Wittman.
“That’s part of it, being a championship team,” Wittman said. “Putting your nose in there when it’s time to get a stop and take a charge. We have a team that’s willing to get dirty like that. That’s part of becoming a championship team. In trying to become that team, you have to be willing to sacrifice, and he stepped in to take the charge.”
The victory pushed the Wizards (27-12) over a hump. They departed Georgia on Sunday evening with a troubling trend in full effect: They had visited three fellow Eastern Conference contenders this season and each time left empty-handed. On Sunday, the Atlanta Hawks’ 31-point trouncing left the point differential in their three road games against the Hawks, Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers at minus-76.
Atlanta trounced the Wizards by capitalizing on their 20 turnovers, and Washington couldn’t recover from the deluge. On Wednesday, the Wizards reversed their turnover problems after halftime. They committed just three turnovers in the second half after totaling 12 in the first. The ball security buoyed Washington to an early third-quarter lead and helped hold off the Bulls (26-14) in the waning moments.
After Paul Pierce’s three stretched the lead to double digits, Nene and John Wall partnered to score the Wizards’ final 10 points to complete the Wizards’ second win against a title contender in 24 hours following their triumph over the San Antonio Spurs in the District on Tuesday night.
“That’s what we talked about today,” said Wall, who registered 21 points and nine assists. “It’s great to finally get a win against one of the top-four, top-five elite teams in our conference on the road. We were getting blown out by just about everybody we played, so we wanted to come here with a sense of urgency.”
It was the Wizards’ second win over the Bulls in five nights. And like they did at Verizon Center on Friday, in the preseason in October and in the playoffs last spring, Nene and the rest of the front line overwhelmed Chicago’s front court with physicality. The Wizards outrebounded the Bulls 43-33 and tallied 16 second-chance points.
“We saw what we did in the first game and in the preseason game. Always when we play Chicago, we’re going to be like that,” Nene said. “It’s going to be [about] physicality.”
The Wizards’ starting lineup fueled the effort. All five players scored in double figures. Pierce paced them with 22 points on 7-for-12 shooting and added six rebounds. Bradley Beal added 17 points and six assists, while Nene finished with 13 points to go with his eight assists.
“How many power forwards in this league are going to get you eight assists?” Wittman said. “We can run our offense through him, and we all know how unselfish of a player he is, and he was huge tonight.”
For one quarter, however, Derrick Rose trumped all. The Bulls point guard watched last April’s decisive Game 5 in a suit on the bench. On Wednesday, he spent the first quarter tormenting the Wizards on the floor in his white No. 1 jersey. Rose didn’t look like the 40 percent shooter he has been following two lost seasons. He looked like an MVP.
The three-time all-star displayed his entire arsenal. He drove to the basket with his signature reckless abandon to convert a couple tough layups. He drained midrange jumpers and stretched his range out to the three-point line. Rose concluded his exhibition with some magic, swishing a half-court shot at the buzzer to cap a 17-point first quarter and double the Bulls’ lead to six.
Rose finished with a season-high six three-pointers and a game-high 32 points, but the rest of the Bulls’ starters were punchless as Chicago fell to 12-9 at home with their fourth loss in five games. The other four players, including Joakim Noah, who didn’t play in the second half because of an ankle injury, registered 35 points on 11-for-31 shooting.
The defensive effort began with the 32-year-old Nene limiting Gasol to 13 points on 4-for-11 shooting and supplying the plays down the stretch to finally elevate Washington over a fellow contender on the road.
“I thought he was spectacular,” Wittman said.
Box score: Wizards 105, Bulls 99