CHICAGO – Inexperience promises to unravel and display flaws, these Washington Wizards listened to people tell them. All this talent up and down the roster, players with championship game moxie, and they still heard some couldn’t get over how their backcourt’s so young, how the veterans relied upon had broken down.
They listened to people pestering about how this postseason serves as the learning template for John Wall and Bradley Beal, and nothing more. On his walk out of the interview room on Sunday night, out of a convincing 24 points on an array of jump shots and post moves in the Wizards’ 102-93 Game 1 win over the Bulls, Nene let out a laugh, smiling about the perception of him and Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Al Harrington, succumbing to this first-round series as an educational tool for Wall, Beal and Washington’s youth.
Nene had lost sleep Saturday night, tossing and turning about the challenges that the Bulls presented. So you mean to tell him Chicago is heavy favorites in the series, and Nene shakes his head and asserts: I kill hours overnight worrying about my job, and we all must inherit the same urgency.
Seven made jump shots, four finishes in the paint, and Nene absolutely shredded the Bulls and outmuscled and outmatched Joakim Noah. For all of Wall’s talent, Beal’s purity on the jump shot and the balanced cast around them, no one commands the need to be utilized – no one requires the defensive crowd – quite like Nene. When he’s double-teamed, the passes swing to perimeter shooters. When the help fails to arrive, Nene goes to work.
“We never had a confident vet like Nene,” Wall told RealGM.
“Nene can come up with games like this when he’s rolling,” Gortat said. “Very talented, so dominant, so big – not many people in this league can match his strength and his skill.”
Production born out of his skill and strength never has been Nene’s issue, and his offensive grace and defensive hands – areas Tom Thibodeau marveled about – gave him All-Star potential with the Denver Nuggets. His ability to withstand a full season and stay effective into April became problematic, and this year some of his coaches quietly wondered about his capacity to contribute upon a return, wondered whether relying on his comeback was simply a wish.
Except Nene never endured a setback in his seven-week recovery from the knee injury, and teammates knew his desperate disposition would flow within him in those last four regular season games played. “He gives us our edge,” one Wizards staffer said. Wall and Beal dominate touches in Randy Wittman’s offense, and rightfully so, but they continued affirming Nene in huddles to stay aggressive and understood the sharpness in his mid-range jumper and post-up game.
The Wizards held their two most successful practices of the season leading up to Game 1, players said, pushing one another to maintain stamina. They had remembered giving away late leads throughout the season and punctuating losses with indecisive shot selection and passing.
Sunday night had shown Washington grasping control of themselves and the early part of this series, a victory despite the Bulls’ 13-point lead in the third quarter and through nearly eight minutes of the fourth. “We lost a lot of games at the end, but this time we played like an experienced team,” said Gortat, who supported Nene with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
He knows this, too: “We can win against anybody, but also we can lose against anybody.”
Thibodeau has imprinted his genius all over the Bulls’ season, and adjustments, film study and his grueling practices loom. One of his first messages Monday, and one he delivered Sunday? “Stop giving the 15-footer,” Thibodeau would tell his players as Nene drained jumper after jumper after jumper.
Noah played with a heart that had tended to the death of a close friend and mentor just days ago, and it’s unclear how much the event – much less the travel – had impacted him from New York on Thursday to Bulls practice Saturday. These Bulls had gone on a second half tear once Noah became a nightly threat for a triple-double, and so his 10-point, 10-rebound, four-assist performance Sunday left a desire for more.
Especially given Nene’s ferocity to bump and bruise bodies with Noah, his comfort with the ball in the high or low post. His fuel to delve deep into his repertoire – fadeaway jumpers, face-up shots, hooks – and those 35 minutes on that body left team officials nodding.
So there Nene was meeting his wife and walking out of the United Center on Sunday, from a mean demeanor on the court, delivering a hard foul on Jimmy Butler, to someone joyous to celebrate a holiday here. “To play on Easter Day is a double blessing,” Nene said.
Nene tossed and turned for hours trying to sleep, anxious about a franchise’s first postseason berth in seven years, and all Nene, Gortat and Ariza could do was smile about a supposed field trip here to learn. Everywhere around the Wizards, everyone knows Nene is capable of these big nights. Twenty-four points, eight rebounds and three assists, force, skill and a 1-0 series lead.