As the Wizards were spiraling out of control during a three-game losing streak, hemorrhaging turnovers and leading the coach to clash with his starting center, more than one person close to the situation pointed out the fix they needed. Nene, who had missed a game with back spasms, is the rock on which the revitalization of the franchise -- and its last two playoff appearances -- was built.
Saturday, in a 108-99 victory vs. the Orlando Magic, the mesaurables said this: nine points on 4 of 8 shooting, six rebounds, three assists and one block in 20 minutes. The unmeasurables: Defense to slow down Nikola Vucevic, rotating properly to seal off baseline drives to help perimeter teammates, the inability of the Magic to collapse on him with the ball because of how he always makes the right reads with the ball and, of course, toughness. The latter is a word that's rarely used in relation to the 7-footer who has moved from starting power forward to backup center.
"His physicality is key. That's what he's always had. He's one of the strongest guys from that type of standpoint of being moved," coach Randy Wittman said. "If I got the spot, you're not moving him off that spot. I thought he came in that first quarter, we were kind of teetering there midway through and I called a quick timeout. When he came in, he got us solidified better defensively there."
The Magic shot 60% in the first quarter when Vucevic was 5 of 7. But only one of those field goals came when Nene entered for Marcin Gortat at 4:29.
Immediately, Nene snatched a rebound in traffic away from guard Elfrid Payton then assisted Gary Neal with a nice bounce pass for a layup on a give-and-go to tie the score at 21. When the Magic's defense sucked in on him in the mid-post, Ramon Sessions cut to the basket and Nene found him with a pass over the top for a layup.
With 3:34 left in the second quarter, Vucevic made one more field goal on a 17-foot fadeaway, but the Brazilian went strong to the basket himself for a finger-roll layup.
In other words, because of how Nene bodied Vucevic off of his spot, he was relegated to taking shots farther from the rim. Nene, who played in a pace-and-space offense when he spent all of his career with the Denver Nuggets before being traded to Washington in 2012, couldn't be more comfortable in this role and got to the rim at will. Even if it didn't result in a basket for him, it broke down Orlando's defense.
"Nene's probably our best passing big. Someone that when you give him single coverage that can score one-on-one which is huge and he's a physical defender. He's someone if you come across the lane, he's going to put a little wood on you. He can rebound the ball. You saw he dunked a couple people today," said forward Jared Dudley who comes off the bench with Nene. "You need that. You need an enforcer down there, especially with the second unit.
"With the second unit what we try to do is we go small with myself and we try to space the floor. It gives them more of a lane. Defensively we lose a little bit when it comes to rebounding and that's when you need him, myself. Try to box out as best we can so we can get out and run a little bit more."
After not playing well in the season opener in Orlando, a game the Wizards still won 88-87, Nene has been steady. He has shot 19-for-30 in the last six games in which he has played. He wasn't available for the 24-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last week, a game in which Wittman lamented his team allowing themselves to be pushed around.
That doesn't happen with the Brazilian. There's so much nuance to his game. He seals multiple defenders with his box outs and enormous wingspan, preventing them from getting loose balls and rebounds so his own teammates can have a clear path for recovery. Nene doesn't complain about his numbers because he realizes that his sacrifices are key to the Wizards winning. His teammates realize it, as do his coaches, though most on the outside looking in don't see it.
“He’s a lot different than Marcin," said point guard John Wall. "Marcin uses his height. Nene uses more of his hands and quickness. Nene uses his power against guys. Vucevic is a heck of a player. I feel like he can be an All-Star in this league at any time. A lot of guys on their team can make plays and they’re one of the toughest teams to play because they’re always playing hard.”
Nene, 33, played harder. He just can't play starter's minutes anymore. The only question is if he can play a full season given his repeated health issues.