Forgotten in the topsy-turvy end to the Wizards' season is that while they've fallen a spot to the No. 6 seed, they've gone 12-9 without Nene. He's likely to return from a left knee ligament strain this week, and just in time. When asked if they'd missed his presence after being dominated by the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, no one denied it. It was too obvious.
The Wizards (40-37) could end up facing the Bulls, who they've beaten twice in three meetings. The two victories came with Nene, who gives Bulls forward-center Joakim Noah problems. Without Nene on the floor Saturday, the Bulls were able to double-team John Wall and Bradley Beal.
"Nene gives us another facilitator. Against a team like this you need another one," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "With John being one, Bradley can do some things off the dribble but Nene was another guy that can play like Noah does at the top with the ball in his hands, the passing and also the posting up that he does for us. That's no an excuse why we lost."
Trevor Booker has occupied Nene's spot in the starting lineup next to center Marcin Gortat. While Booker is a glue player who does a lot of dirty work and can hit the occasional mid-range shot, the Wizards aren't running their offense through him like they do with Nene. They're just one game ahead of the Charlotte Bobcats, who they play at Verizon on Wednesday, for the No. 6 seed.
In a 96-93 win vs. the Bulls on Jan. 17, Nene only shot 3-for-15, but he defended Jimmy Butler on the perimeter and blocked his three-point attempt to tie at the buzzer. The versatile big man doesn't have to fill up a stat sheet to make a serious impact.
"Huge difference," Gortat said when asked about not having Nene to lean on. "He can knock down the open jump shot. He's a huge threat defensively under the basket. It's a huge difference. He's a veteran. He's a very skilled player.
"We still believe we can beat them. We did this already twice, in their place and here at home. We just got to come out ready to play, everybody has to be healthy and it will definitely be better if we have Nene back."
Beal isn't ready to concede that missing Nene was the reason for Saturday's non-performance.
"You can say that. You can say a lot of things. You can say you wish they didn't double me and John the way they did," Beal said. "You can make a lot of excuses but we still got bigs who are able to post up like Gortat and Book, but I think when we have opportunities on our offensive end, to go and get a good shot. We need to take advantage of it."