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Nene Shows Wizards Impact Of His Skill, Health In Franchise's First Playoff Win Since 2008

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.

DeRozan Never Doubted Future With Raptors, Validated In Franchise Turnaround

The crossroads of a franchise flashed before DeMar DeRozan, a text message punched to Rudy Gay signaling two paths. DeRozan stood inside the Los Angeles locker room in December with his Toronto Raptors teammates, hugging goodbye to Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray and some reaching Gay by phone, and privately many of them wondered: What’s next?

The Raptors could have crumbled under the weight of endless questions about their futures, put Dwane Casey on severe lookout for his job and faltered toward a lottery pick – or bonded inside a tight locker room with stabilizing newcomers from the Sacramento Kings, cleansed the playbook of dense isolation sets and implement a free-flowing style that has given a raucous fan base reason to believe in sacrificing basketball.

Mostly, DeRozan had to prove the organization’s old vision of him as a cornerstone, as an efficient guard and reliable leader. He needed to mature as a two-way, inside and out player. For DeRozan, the departure of Gay had been the precise sign. His stats couldn’t be empty anymore.

Masai Ujiri had entertained a serious reconstruction of the roster before the trade deadline, as he’s publicly stated, but DeRozan had already made clear in his mind: He had to stay – and win – with the Raptors.

“There was no doubt about my future here and I never had a doubt,” DeRozan told RealGM. “It was never a thought of leaving or nothing. I took an onus of myself to step up my game, especially when the trade happened because I understood what it feels like to be in a struggle and be in a tough season. Now, we have great relationships with each other, before it comes to basketball.

“That trade was our cue that everybody has to step up. It could’ve turned real ugly, real fast.”

So now, DeRozan earns his first showing in the postseason, a premiere stage for an All-Star scorer of his ilk. Around him, Casey’s mastered the pedal on this team, cognizant of when to motivate forcefully and subtly, and Kyle Lowry instigates balanced shots and sharp ball movement.

Before a dramatic reversal of a season, Toronto had been a meddling, mediocre group. There was no choice but to jolt the players and coaches with that first trade. They had no identity, no established system – only jump-shooting tendencies, external blame for the coaching staff and a perception across the NBA of me-first attitudes.

“When I got here, I read up on the team and people were talking about how they wanted the team to tank so they could get a good draft pick,” Patrick Patterson said. “They said the ball movement wasn’t there; that players were selfish holding the ball, a lot of isos, and that it wasn’t great basketball. I was unaware of that situation, what was going on, but I’m thankful for when I got here it wasn’t like that at all. People moved the ball, averaged high assists and bought into their roles.”

They started an alluring brand of ball, and it’s in turn made them an appealing franchise with which to remain. Casey admits he owes a tremendous amount to Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes for cultivating positivity among younger players, for providing calmness amid the ups and downs of a season and eliminating any locker room divides. With DeRozan locked into his contract potentially until 2017, with a priority to re-sign Lowry and with a firm front office, two pending free agents who are critical to the rotation, Patterson and Vasquez, are immensely open to returning on long-term deals.

Winning does this for any organization. After Chris Bosh left in 2010, the Raptors dwelled toward the bottom of the league, free agents losing sight of the city’s draw and fans’ backing. And now, they’ll be a desired destination.

“I wouldn’t mind staying with the Raptors at all,” Patterson told RealGM. “Toronto is a great city, and it has great basketball fans, which surprised me the most when I got here. I didn’t know the fan support was so great in Toronto.”

“If we stay together for three, four years … woo, this team will be scary,” Vasquez said. “We just got to stay humble.”

DeRozan kept his humility through the losing seasons, but he noticed increasing detractors of his game, his contract. He never implored Gay about his similar judgments, because he said he knew, “Being overlooked comes with [the league], and you use it as motivation. That’s all I did – use negative thoughts, critics as motivation.”

DeMar has some Rudy in him – the exciting athleticism and habit to fall in love with the jumper – and Gay received a maximum contract in 2010 for this blend in his repertoire. As Gay faded farther and farther away from the rim, regaining some of his old propensities with the Kings, DeRozan has shown far more determination to use his leaping ability and strength to attack the basket.

Now, Toronto gets homecourt advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and DeRozan promises these Raptors have a measured vision of advancing. This season was spiraling in two avenues months ago, uncertainties clouding DeRozan’s future and the standing of his point guard and coach and franchise. Sure, his GM received inquiries from teams searching to pickpocket the 24-year-old.

Every one of these Raptors was on the clock to see how this core would respond and how far these once misfit parts could go, and no one continues to outlast it more than DeMar DeRozan.

Xavier Henry Elevates Game, Mind And Body In Redemptive Season With Lakers

Xavier Henry exited the doctor’s examination room and impatiently clenched his hand, fearing his wrist lacked the capacity to allow him to finish a resurrecting season. Moments later, his doctor emerged from an office, eyed the wrist and looked toward a young NBA journeyman on his third team in four years.

“Xavier, you need surgery,” the doctor told Henry.

Henry had known his past wrist injuries that alleviated within a week were nothing like this sharp pain in his left shooting wrist, and he heard from the doctor that it was as severe as possible – short of a fracture. He was diagnosed with a torn ligament on March 22 and prescribed a surgery timetable of sooner than later. From Kobe Bryant to Luol Deng, Henry heard about players passing on wrist surgery, testing their pain tolerance and, slowly, curing the ligaments.

And still, Henry had been informed his ligament had ruptured too seriously, beyond the grasp of natural healing.

If he wanted to continue playing, the Los Angeles Lakers’ trainers warned Henry he’d endure perhaps his career’s most grueling physical challenge. In the days later, Henry practiced in the Lakers’ facility and felt his wrist respond to the bumps and hits delivered on it. That’s when he says he decided, “I might as well play it out and see how long I can go before I get surgery.”

With the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans, the lottery expectations with which Henry entered the league in 2010 went unattained. He failed to stay healthy, failed to produce when on the court. After this season, Henry will undergo surgery on his wrist and is unsure if his right knee – in which he sustained a bone bruise and an abnormality of the lateral meniscus – needs some sort of procedure as well.

For someone on a one-year deal, Henry understands there’s no urge to force him to play through these injuries. He easily could fix the wrist and rest the knee, and yet Lakers' coaches and teammates recognize his loyalty to the staff that gave him a chance to earn a lasting position and merit another contract.

“If the Lakers want me back, I would love to be back,” Henry told RealGM. “I love it here, love playing on this team, and we have a great organization. It’s been eye-opening for me, and I enjoy it. You always have two sides of things – I can’t always control whatever I want to in free agency.

“The wrist, it’s painful. This doesn’t feel like it’s going away, but I’d rather play in these games and give myself a chance to get better, develop with the guys and try to get wins before I hang it up and know it’s done for the season.

“And I got so much on my mind, trying to heal and leave it all on the court. I really want to make this last as long as I can.”

For three seasons, Henry had been a meager part and less heralded talents rose above him in rotations. He was a five-star college recruit fleeting out of a role in the NBA. There was an incoherent jump shot. There were rare glimpses of athleticism. There was a glorified role player at Kansas lacking a niche on the next level.

The Lakers came calling with a training camp invitation in September, and most of all, came pitching a wing reserve spot in Mike D’Antoni’s system. Between his first preseason performance of 29 points and seven rebounds and a 22-point season debut, Henry captured a roster spot.

Between then and now, Henry has averaged 10.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, one steal and 21.3 minutes per game – presenting a more polished jumper, a knack to draw fouls and reach the free throw line at an average of 4.2 shot attempts and a high-character approach inside the locker room and on the sideline. In a lost Lakers season, Henry starred in two of their best moments: a destructive dunk on Jeff Withey in November, and 22 points in 23 minutes in a 127-96 victory over the New York Knicks on March 25.

“I just didn’t get the same opportunity and the same playing time in the past,” Henry says. “I hurt myself early in my career … but I didn’t get the same kind of opportunities that I have now and I’m trying to make the most of every one that I get.”

Henry so wishes he had back those two months he missed due to his right knee issue, and sitting in the trainer’s room he would feel distant from the team. He remembers some past locker atmospheres; how everyone would forget the presence of an injured teammate.

This time, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Farmar made concerted efforts to stay updated on Henry and his knee’s status, and it made such a difference for him to receive their input.

“They stayed in my ear,” Henry says. “I was hurt, and they made sure I was on top of my rehab and made sure I was ready to come back.”

All but three players on guaranteed contracts for next season, all the losing for a historic franchise, and Henry knows the Lakers’ infrastructure has every reason to be toxic. It has every reason to be a despondent, scattered group.

“For a lot of guys on one-year deals and not knowing what they’re going to do in the summer, there could be a lot more controversy with players trying to go on their own,” Henry says. “But guys are really trying to commit to the team aspect, and I like that. The camaraderie is pretty good. We all want to win and we are all dedicated to working.

“It doesn’t always happen for us of course, but the games we have won, we’ve had guys play together.”

From Nick Young’s team-building antics to Henry’s unyielding approach with his injuries, this is what maintains the Lakers’ sane environment and keeps them communicative. “[Henry] is tough, he’s fearless,” D’Antoni said recently. “He loves to play, and he battles.”

No one knows exactly who will return to the Lakers in the offseason, decisions looming up and down the roster. No, Henry won’t be choosing between only non-guaranteed camp offers in free agency, so, yes, a bright smile fills the face about the excitement and prospect of being desired, of finding an agreement with Los Angeles management.

Whatever, Henry says, because the last weeks of a season and post-season remedies consume his mind. Out of all rationality, out of the doctor’s advice, he probably belongs most on the bench for good – restoring his body’s health – and still, here is Xavier Henry promising to play out a season with a busted wrist, a dragging knee and an end that removes those distasteful ones of years past.

Aquille Carr's Second Chance

Upon his release from the D-League, Aquille Carr started a purifying process around him, eliminating distractions and creating a gym regimen.

Early Team Meeting Inspired John Wall Into Raising Leadership, Belief In Wizards' Core

John Wall had grown so accustom to the scene: a lackluster start to the season and segments of the Wizards' locker room slowly griping. This team meeting, teammates had settled upon the chair of the franchise’s max player.

Trade Interest Left Kenneth Faried Feeling Coveted And Unsurprised

How close Nuggets management ever came to consummating a deal is uncertain, and every round of speculation surrounding Kenneth Faried had presented like a hopeless plea on the outside. His youth and blend of athleticism and ferocious knack for the ball make him a self-starter.

How Anthony Davis Celebrated First All-Star Berth, Is Uncertain Of Future Dunk Contest

Anthony Davis talks to RealGM about the model leaders on burgeoning teams, how he stays focused and the story behind finding out about his All-Star bid.

Dwight Howard Regains Commanding Locker Room Voice With Rockets

The Rockets didn’t promise Dwight Howard winning, as much as it promised the comfort and attainment of his own locker room to lead again.

Leandro Barbosa Overcame Doubts He'd Play Again Before Speedy ACL Comeback

As superstar players applied supreme caution healing from significant knee surgeries, Leandro Barbosa was steadfast and sought an unconventional technique – training with Brazilian soccer players, consuming their conditioning exercises.

Surgical Advances, Rehab Progress Give Eric Bledsoe Hope In Full Recovery

With tremendous earning potential in the offseason, Eric Bledsoe could very well be motivated by returning as soon as the removal surgery permits, by proving his worth before free agency. No matter: The Suns believe in Bledsoe, and the front office has made clear it will match any offer someone could give him in July.

Paul Millsap's All-Star Caliber Season Lifts Hawks From Disappointment Of Losing Horford

Paul Millsap had anticipated a prosperous collaboration with Al Horford, a cleverly run offense by Jeff Teague – not Horford’s second major torn pectoral injury in two years, Teague lost to an ankle injury for now, and, most of all, a charge to be “Do it all Paul,” as teammates call him.

Zach Randolph Hoping Partnership With Marc Gasol Lasts Beyond This Season

From the moment he arrived to the Grizzlies, Zach Randolph imagined a cooperation with Marc Gasol defying NBA odds. An unorthodox, once ball dominant power forward, and a forgotten Gasol brother.

Klay Thompson Seamlessly Responds To Early Test Of Role

Not every 23-year-old rising star accepts his role being teetered. Astute and understanding, Klay Thompson held a calm demeanor as coaches debated the best course of action in camp, displaying exactly the type of self-starting and ego sacrifice the Warriors now integrate within their culture.

Bulls Would Be Foolish To Entertain Parting With Tom Thibodeau

Aside from Derrick Rose, Tom Thibodeau has been the best thing that happened to this management core, a wise and franchise-altering hire three years ago, and now they shouldn’t let his future in Chicago spin and swerve and jeopardize in front of the NBA.

With Increased Training, Tim Duncan Remains Model Star For Sustained Spurs

From 1997 to now, nothing has changed, as Gregg Popovich states exactly right: Tim Duncan is still the base of everything for the Spurs. As well conditioned as a year ago where the Finals were nearly in hand and still breaking records and chasing history at 37 years old.

Avery Bradley Heeds Direction From Garnett, Pierce In Rise To A Celtics' Leader

Out of Boston and onto Brooklyn, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett understood leaders would be newly cultivated. As much as anything, Avery Bradley heard from them that being a foundational part of the Celtics’ rebuild wouldn’t be easy – that there’s a preciousness to patience, to discipline.

Derek Fisher Sees Championship Sacrifices In Durant, Westbrook As He Chases One Last Title

Derek Fisher has witnessed leaders forget about individual benchmarks and forfeit time away from the court for his five NBA championships. He’s pursuing a sixth now and in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Fisher knows there’s a commitment to fill any vacancy on the floor.

Andrew Bynum Managing Pain Still Lingering In Knees

Andrew Bynum has played four games as part of a comeback with an established Cavaliers organization that prepared itself to fulfill his rehabilitation. Through it all, a clear truth washed over Bynum: His rehab promises to be ongoing as he talks to RealGM about the state of his health.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's Humbling USA Basketball Experience Keeps Him Wanting More

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has evident traits to translate into an elite player. He’s lengthy, relentless in drives to the basket, and displays a visible passion in both high and low moments in a game. His first season didn’t match the expectations of the Bobcats’ No. 2 pick, and yet MKG remains a willing learner at just 20.

For NBA's Best, Derrick Rose Returns To Game Fearless – And Confident He's Better

As Derrick Rose went further and further into his comeback, George Hill had grasped an unmistakable trend with what was transpiring between his team’s defense and the 2011 MVP. In many ways, he sought the collisions to reassert that there will be no change in his fearless driving style.

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