- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2014

CHICAGO – Even after finding out he had sprained the MCL in his left knee, an injury that would require approximately six weeks of recovery, Nenê didn’t want to think about the playoffs.

Sure, he knew the timetable would leave him in line to return right around when the Wizards could begin a possible postseason run. He checked the calendar and he had done the math.

His concern, though, was that he’d focus too much on the future and not about the present. The playoffs wouldn’t matter if he wasn’t cleared to play.

“I just looked to get better, put my conditioning in my game – you know, focus on a couple things to make my legs go stronger,” Nenê said.

As the Wizards began their first playoff series in six years on Sunday against the Chicago Bulls, having Nenê back in the starting lineup – and healthy – is a step that will make them stronger as well.

He scored a game-high 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 35 minutes in Washington’s 102-93 victory, carrying the team in the first quarter and for a good part of the fourth quarter.

SEE ALSO: NBA Playoffs: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade help Miami get title defense off to good start

Not having the forward in the lineup has occasionally been problematic. Despite defeating the Bulls in their first two regular-season meetings, the Wizards struggled against Chicago on April 5, falling down 28 at the end of the second quarter and losing 96-78.

“He’s vital to our team,” said coach Randy Wittman. “I mean, we’ve seen that since we’ve made the trade for Nenê – the importance he has to our team. That’s true. Obviously, having him is going to be a big plus for us, and we saw that in [four] games since he came back here at the end of the year … both from an offensive and defensive standpoint.”

On offense, Nenê gives the Wizards a viable decision-maker – a player who can either attack the basket or kick the ball out to a shooter on the perimeter. He’s capable of handling the ball in the high post, or drifting out and facing the basket himself.

But it’s on defense where Nenê may make his biggest mark in this series. The 6-foot-11, 250-pound forward will encounter a pair of physical post players in the Bulls‘ Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, as well as reserve Taj Gibson, a front-runner for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award.

Boozer will be his primary responsibility, but the Wizards are likely to switch he and center Marcin Gortat at times, just to give the Bulls a different defensive look.

“Nenê’s going to be, I think, one of the most crucial guys in this competition,” Gortat said. “It’s going to be a clash of titans over there under the basket – Boozer and Nenê. Two big boys that can match their physicality.”

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, regarded as one of the league’s premier defensive minds, praised Nenê’s versatility before Game 1 on Sunday. The forward’s intelligence and quickness, he said, can be hard to match.

“He’s a terrific player, you know?” Thibodeau said. “He’s an all-star talent. … You’ve got to be careful with him, in terms of when you have the ball. We know how good he is.”

The Wizards went 12-9 without Nenê before he returned on April 9 in an overtime home loss to the Charlotte Bobcats. His workload gradually increased, first from 16 minutes in his return to 24 minutes in a blowout victory over the Miami Heat at home on April 14, but he didn’t supplant Trevor Booker as the starter during that span.

In each of the four games Nenê played – he missed a fifth, the second of games on consecutive nights, for precautionary reasons – he has narrowly surpassed his season average by averaging 14.3 points. His tenacity on the boards has yet to return, though it’s clear he has started to regain trust in his knee.

“Having him definitely helps us, just because of everything he brings to the table,” said guard Bradley Beal. “We’ve missed him over the last couple games when he wasn’t with us, but for him to be back now, playing at a high level even with his knee, is definitely a great sign. Hopefully, moving forward, we continue to use him to our best interests.”

Nenê still hasn’t shown that he can handle his pre-injury workload of 30 minutes a game – but then again, he hasn’t given any indication he can’t, either.

As he came off the practice court Saturday at Verizon Center before the team headed west, sweat dripped down his head, his jersey was damp and the bulky black brace he had been wearing on his left knee glistened.

“Before, I was just walking, and now, I’m going to run, jog a little bit,” Nenê said, smiling. “When it’s the playoffs, I’ll be running.”

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