WASHINGTON — Last week, on a day off during their first-round playoff series, Nene and John Wall relaxed in the cold tub at the Verizon Center and chatted about the journey that brought the Washington Wizards back from obscurity.
“How we came and how we started,” the 31-year-old Brazilian said. “And where we are right now.”
There’s more time for such conversations now, and there’s definitely more to talk about. The Wizards not only have finished off the Chicago Bulls in five games — giving the franchise its first playoff series win in nine years — but they also have at least a three-day layoff before the start of Round 2.
Nene, who always seems to be recovering from one injury or another, couldn’t ask for anything more. Some of his most important time during the wait will be the 15 minutes per day he spends in the cold tub soaking those sore muscles.
“That’s my best friend right now,” he said.
The Wizards will face either the Atlanta Hawks or Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and both matchups look inviting. The eighth-seeded Hawks finished the regular season six games under .500, and the Pacers are a stunningly vulnerable No. 1 seed that has become of shell of itself over the last month.
The Wizards will need to win only one game in the series to match their number of second-round victories from the last 35 years, but such dubious history, so far at least, hasn’t been a drag on this group.
“We believe in this,” center Marcin Gortat said after Tuesday night’s clinching win over the Bulls. “If we play hard, if we’re really physical, we can beat everybody. We’ve proved that.”
And it will be easier if Nene is hitting on all cylinders. Last week, the veteran forward was called the team’s “X-factor” — perhaps an unusual moniker for someone making $13 million per year. Nene, who was born Maybyner Rodney Hilario, responded that he has “a lot of nicknames now” and that his favorite is “Big Moose.”
Whatever he’s called, Nene has a leadership, grit and all-around game that have become essential to the Wizards. Another of the many ways to measure the impact: When projected over 48 minutes, his plus-minus of 3.6 is better than that of Wall, Bradley Beal or Trevor Ariza.
But, of course, Nene isn’t going to play 48 minutes. Left foot. Right knee. Left calf. Right Achilles. Right foot. Left knee. Those are, in chronological order, the body parts that have had significant injuries since he arrived via trade in March 2012. A sprained MCL in his left knee sidelined him for 22 games late in the regular season, and it was far from certain that his glued-together body would be able to stand much of a workload against the Bulls.
He put such doubts to rest in a hurry. He averaged 36 minutes in four games, missing one not because of injury but for a suspension after an altercation with Jimmy Butler in Game 3.
In Game 5, Nene was arguably the difference. He scored 20 points on 10-for-17 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds. After the game was tied at halftime, he scored the first six Wizards points of the second half to give Washington the lead for good. The Bulls, in particular, never found a way to defend his midrange jumper.
The Wizards preserved with six-point victory with an astounding eight offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter, including two by Nene off missed free throws in the final 20 seconds.
“It’s all the intangibles. I use that word for Nene all the time,” coach Randy Wittman said. “He can score, he can shoot, he can post, he can pass, he can dribble, he can defend, and combination of (all) that. When he’s not there, you can’t put one guy in who has all those things.”
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)