Playing like a team with an attitude, determined to make up for an egregious loss at the Chicago Bulls last month, the tone was far more aggressive Wednesday. As one player explained, it wasn't a change in defensive scheme that was responsible for the 117-96 victory: "No. 42 was in the starting lineup."
That would be Nene, who took over for Marcin Gortat who had "tweaked" his back in pregame warmups. Coach Randy Wittman didn't find out until just before tipoff that he wouldn't have his usual starter there.
Nene, coming off a season-high 20 points in just 16 minutes played off the bench in a 43-point blowout of the Detroit Pistons on Monday, hit the Bulls early with pinpoint passes to cutters for layups, fouls, getting to the basket himself and draining open shots. Nene had 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting and went to the free-throw line eight times alone in the first half.
"It's a lot smoother when you post him up. He can score in the post one-on-one," said John Wall, who posted his third triple-double of the season with 29 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. "He knows how to make passes and make plays. It makes the offense a little bit more comfortable."
Nene only took one shot in the first quarter for three points. He had a bounce pass between the legs of Otto Porter to Markieff Morris for a layup. Several other "hockey" assists occurred, too, as Nene made an open jumper for a 15-6 lead and then beat the more athletic Taj Gibson down the floor and drew his second foul less than five minutes in. He did the same thing to Bobby Portis, forcing Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to go to Cristiano Felicio for 17 minutes.
When Nene is on the floor, Porter tends to play better with him because he'll find backdoor cutters. Gortat is more of a pick-and-roll big who won't take advantage of his size and strength in a matchup with Gibson the way Nene does.
The Wizards have won the season series with Chicago 2-1 as the race for the postseason tightens.
Gortat started the second half at center and finished with nine points and six rebounds. Nene only played eight minutes after the break.
"Nene, I thought, was fantastic again," Wittman said.
When the 7-foot Brazilian is engaged at this level, the Wizards have a dimension that no other big on the roster provides. It's why moving him before the season or at the trade deadline though he's in the final year of his contract never was a serious option. Nene or JaVale McGee? Where would the Wizards be if they hadn't swapped one for the other in 2012?
Nene changed the locker room culture and though he's oft-injured the Wizards are competing to go to the playoffs for the third year in a row. McGee is on his third team since leaving. Nene being at half-speed is better than McGee on full blast.
"Nene is terrific," said shooting guard Bradley Beal. "He is able to shoot the ball, move the ball. He is always a pass-first guy. Sometimes I hate it because I feel like he is the best big who can score for us. Whenever he is out there with the starters, it's awesome. It just spaces the floor and it just creates more havoc."