When desperation tolled on Tuesday night — first at the end of regulation and then at the end of overtime — the Wizards turned to Nene. In neither case was the final shot his to take. For the former, Nene was employed as a crucial screener and potential bail-out option for Bradley Beal. In the latter, his post position and passing were used as instruments of creation. Neither sequence ended in a score, which at a time as basketball-dense as the first round of the NBA playoffs currently is, might be the functional equivalent of it never happening at all.
Those plays (and Nene’s hand in them) will undoubtedly be lost, drowned out in the greater triumph of Washington’s 2-0 push ahead of Chicago in this first-round series. Yet the possessions in question were telling in the way that all late-game decisions tend to be, especially those of a coach and team making their introduction to the postseason. With Game 2 riding on a single play, Wizards coach Randy Wittman trusted in Nene’s ability to pry Beal free of his defender and make himself available. Then, when given another chance, Wittman made Nene his play’s operational center — the point around which all action would revolve, including the curl up the middle of the floor that would give Beal a second chance to end the night.
Nene won’t touch the ball on Washington’s every trip down the floor, nor should he when John Wall’s driving ability is so clearly vital. But when faced with an opponent like the Bulls — one that squelches the rhythms of opposing offenses with precision and ferocity — Nene becomes utterly essential. Chicago systematically encourages opponents to settle in all of their usual play progressions. It’s amazing how often the Bulls can force their opponents to make one more pass than is entirely comfortable; even when the crowded superstar makes the right play in swinging the ball to an open teammate, Chicago rotates quickly to then apply pressure to a player slightly less accustomed to it.
Through Nene, Washington’s offense has the ability to mitigate that programmed denial. He’s a masterful facilitator — not as renowned for his passing as Joakim Noah, but no less capable of re-routing a possession in progress. Rather than roll toward the rim and into the teeth of the defense, Nene pops out to mid-range to give the Wizards a pressure release. He operates from the low post to attack the Bulls from within, bullying Noah inside and carefully navigating Chicago’s grip on interior space. Nene works the elbow, too, to orchestrate a series of incisive cuts — the kind of action that gives the Bulls little time to react and few options in help.
Chicago knows just what kinds of shots to take away from its opponents and generally succeeds in its efforts to do so. Attacking that kind of defense with blunt driving and idling sets would get the Wizards nowhere. Yet with Nene so useful in so many functions, Washington’s offense can reorient itself to work around particular obstructions. Already we’ve seen Noah forced to play Nene a bit tighter on the perimeter, having surrendered a few too many open jumpers to a player making 57 percent of his mid-range shots for the series. That in itself is a big shift for a Bulls team that relies on Noah to protect against most any other threat. He can still make most necessary recoveries, but Noah is at times pulled a full step further from the action than Chicago generally likes. Such deviation comes with a cost.
This might all seem a bit abstract in describing a player who has blasted one of the best defenses in basketball for an ultra-efficient 20.5 points a night, but it’s important to understand the power Nene draws from finesse. This is a man strong enough to back down the Defensive Player of the Year without issue. Nene is massive — listed at 6-11 and stretched into broad shoulders built out with obvious strength. He damn near tears down the rim on his every dunk attempt. Yet the reason why he’s proven so potent against these Bulls is that he is wholly at ease doing just about anything. No space or action intimidates him. A catch on the block, on the wing, at the elbow, or at the top of the floor is met with the same measured response: Nene scans for openings and either makes his play or moves along. There is no anxiety in the game of a big man this capable.
Washington stands victorious after two games on that fact, its offense smoothed by Nene’s calm pliability. Nothing at all comes easy against a defense like Chicago’s, but in working through and around a talent like Nene Washington’s work turns markedly easier.
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