One look at the Wizards against Atlanta on Wednesday and instinctively anyone watching knew things were different. Obviously, the final result remained the same as Washington fell to a franchise-record 0-10 start following a crushing 101-100 overtime loss to the Hawks. Yet during his 19 minutes, his first live game action since August 8, Nene's on-court impact proved obvious.
"He was huge," guard A.J. Price said. "Regardless of his stats, just his presence on the floor alone gave us confidence - almost a new found confidence for me in my first time playing with him. A confidence I don't think we had at all this year. You could just feel the difference with him on the court."
Following Friday's practice, Wizards coach Randy Wittman said of Nene, "He showed me a lot because basically he hadn't played a basketball game since [August 8] when Brazil got beat in the Olympics. That was his last 5-on-5, that's a long time to come back in the end of November and play the way he did."
Coming off the bench against the Hawks, Nene scored 12 points and grabbed three rebounds while sinking 8 of 10 free throws. Best of all, no physical setbacks, no re-aggravation of the plantar fasciitis injury in his right foot that kept the 30-year-old out of the lineup for the first nine games and out of practice until last week.
"My quads are sore, that's the news," Nene said on Friday, having wrapped up final minutes of practice with an assortment of ice bags covering his legs. "I tried to compensate on my left cause my left is my strong leg so my quad's a little sore. That's going to take a while...I was out that long, I need to be patient."
As for simply playing in a game that counted, Nene said, "It was good. I'm going to do everything to help my team. I'm going to give my best on the court. When I do that, inside, I know I feel OK. Now we need to win. When start to win, I'm gonna start feeling great. So now, I feel OK."
Heading into Saturday's home game against Charlotte, Wittman said he is still mulling over his starting lineup options, having used a different five in three of the last four games. While Shaun Livingston and Kevin Seraphin started along side Jordan Crawford, Jan Vesely and Bradley Beal, Price had 14 points and seven assists coming off the bench for the first time this season. In his initial appearance a member of Washington's second unit,Trevor Ariza tallied 12 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.
Not only did Nene not start against Atlanta, he also did play in the extra session. Wittman acknowledged he had his primary interior presence on a minutes count with 20 being the outer limit. Technically Nene's overall run clocked in at 19:43, meaning Wittman had a few seconds to play with.
"I probably should have put him out there for the [overtime] jump ball and then taken him out," the coached cracked, before discussing the delicate balance he faces regarding Nene's minutes. "I've got to be careful. It's hard. The impact he has on our team and how he helps our other players especially from an offense standpoint, we've got to be smart too."
That smart talk includes the team's play in the final minutes. Even without Nene on the court, Price said the confidence he provided, "carried over to the end of the game. We were playing hard still, but we still didn’t execute at the end of the game the way we should’ve and, that’s on us.”
“We’ve got to learn to win games down the stretch,” said Wittman, who also reminded his team of the one game they truly never competed in this season.
"We owe them," the coach stated at the end of practice, referring to the Bobcats. Washington lost at Charlotte 92-76 on Nov. 13. Not only is the margin Washington's largest in defeat this season, it also stands as its only game truly decided before the fourth quarter.
While Nene practiced, Trevor Booker sat out with a right knee strain. The 6-foot-8 forward did play against Atlanta after suffering an injury late in Monday's home loss against Indiana.