ATLANTA -- After Game 1, as John Wall sat in front of his locker with ice on his ballooning left wrist to encourage his teammate directly across from him. "That's sacrifice," he told Nene repeatedly after the 104-98 victory to take home-court advantage from the Atlanta Hawks.
Just as Wall's relationship with Marcin Gortat can be an interesting one, so is his with Nene, a veteran who has been used to having the offense run through him. That's no longer the case. Wall has been more assertive, Bradley Beal is taking more shots, Paul Pierce is playing more in Nene's power forward spot and Gortat is getting the ball more in pick-and-rolls going to the rim. Nene? He's become the utilityman.
"Me and him, we talk a lot, in the hotel ... things like that. Just having good communication and knowing what teammates need," said Wall after he injured himself but finished with 18 points, 13 assists and three blocks while Nene failed to score in 17 minutes. "He's sacrificing a lot for out team."
Like Gortat, when Nene doesn't get the ball he has had a tendency to complain and it filters over to the defensive side where there were seriously lapses between the frontcourt and backcourt during the regular season. Wall, who is the leader of the Wizards because he's the primary ballhandler and the one with the $80 million contract, had to manage that. Nene is making $13 million, his role is diminishing and next season he'll be an expiring contract. The conflicting emotions and agendas once got in the way of the Wizards, a 46-win team that should've won at least 50 this season. They're a No. 5 seed with a chance to win two games in a row on the road to start a series for the second time in a row if they can take Game 2 from Atlanta tonight (Pregame coverage starts at 7 p.m. on CSN).
"In the regular season its 82 games. We might not play the pick-and-roll defense or do the offensive sets the way we want to. We see Nene not really being an offensive threat in the playoffs in certain games but he sacrificed, blocking pick-and-rolls, helping each other, getting defensive rebounds, offensive rebounds," Wall said. "Everybody is sacrificing and doing the little things and not complaining just for us to win. I feel like in the regular season sometimes you might not get that because it's a long 82 games."
Beal, who was among those targeted by Nene last season when he said young player on the Wizards weren't focused, has seen the shift in Nene. He's not as hot-headed. He's not worried about scoring. He's not arguing how games are being officiated. Instead, the 7-footer averaged 11 rebounds in the first two games of a first-round series with the Toronto Raptors who were swept. He only had two in Game 1 with Atlanta but figures to be a factor here at some point.
"Nene has been more defensive-minded than anything. He's important because every guy he guards is like a stretch four, can put it on the floor the last two series," Beal said of Nene's matchup with Paul Millsap this series and Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson with Toronto. "He's done a great job of playing the concepts we need him to play.
"Offensively, he doesn't like refs. He's doing a better job of staying poised and just playing through it though at times he's getting smacked hard and there's no call. He does a great job of handling it and playing through it because we're going to need him in the playoffs."