ATLANTA — Martell Webster was stunned. He sat in front of his stall in the visitors locker room at Phillips Arena, still unable to believe what had just happened. Webster thought he had hit the game winning shot — a put-back of a missed jumper by Kevin Seraphin in the closing seconds Wednesday night. Instead, replays revealed that the ball still was in Webster's hands when the bright red backboard lights lit up.
The Atlanta Hawks escaped with a 101-100 overtime win over the Wizards, who dropped to a franchise-worst 0-10 start in their most gut-wrenching loss of the season. The fact that Washington came that close to a win was in large part because of Nene's return. Despite the loss, having Nene back was the silver lining.
"We all know he's a force to be reckoned with," Webster said. "He can change the outcome of a game single-handedly. He kept us fighting, kept us focused. He gave us a chance."
A win would have been the ideal way for the Wizards to celebrate the return of their Brazilian big man. Nene has plantar fasciitis in his left foot, an injury he's had since last season when he missed 10 games.
Although he was skeptical about how much he could do after just one practice, Nene told coach Randy Wittman just before game time that he'd give it his best.
He entered the game with 2:23 left in the first quarter and promptly connected on his first shot. In 19:43, he scored 12 points, including 8 for 10 from the line. But his impact went beyond the box score. His aggressiveness rubbed off on his teammates, whose play is more inspired when he's on the floor.
"We did a good job out there," Nene said. "We need to pay attention to little details at the end of the game — rebounds, recognizing the hot guy on the other team."
Time will tell if his early return leads to a physical setback. There were moments during the game when Nene clearly was limping on the court, and wincing slightly when he left his feet. After the game, he was soaking his foot in ice water, and his knees were wrapped with bags of ice.
Although he recognizes his importance to the team, Nene cautioned that fans shouldn't view him, or John Wall, as some kind of saviors. From his viewpoint, the Wizards are getting better.
"We improved," Nene said. "Slowly, but we improved. Hopefully, we improve every day, each game until we win a game. After that, we're going to take the big gorilla off our back and I think it's going to go smooth."
It's not known whether Nene will continue to be a part of the lineup going forward or if he'll need to sit out a few more games to continue his rehab. Just like his return Wednesday, he could e a game-time decision for the immediate future.
"To get him back means a lot for our team," Wittman said. "His ability to play, his basketball IQ. He makes other people better, gets to the free throw line. All of the little intangible things that we've been missing."
And now begins the Wall watch, and the hope that he and Nene will help reverse the Wizards' fortunes. Nene acknowledges he came back early. He had his reasons.
"Sometimes, you need to sacrifice something to win or invest in your future," Nene said. "This team took me, like when I got traded, they embraced me hard. I told them, I promised them as soon as I get better and I'm able to play, I will help my team.
"That's not to mean I'm cured or not injured. The injury is still there, and I have heart. I have pride, and I trust this team. So that's the reason I'm playing."
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