WASHINGTON — Nene grinned, grabbed the bottom of the net and gleefully swung side to side while waiting for his turn during a post-practice mid-range shooting competition on Thursday with teammate Trevor Booker. Every time Booker made a shot, he moved aside, only to watch in frustration as Nene connected and laughed. Booker held his own but eventually had to concede defeat to the physically imposing Brazilian big man with the stunningly smooth jumper.
Nene's defensive aggressiveness, savvy passing and wily gamesmanship vaulted the Washington Wizards to a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven series against the Chicago Bulls, with Game 3 tonight at Verizon Center. But that jump shot — which Nene spent about 30 minutes mastering with Booker after practice — has repeatedly demoralized the Bulls' vaunted defense and flummoxed Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah.
"I take what they are giving to me," said Nene, who is averaging a team-best 20.5 points on 63.3 percent shooting in the first two games. "I'm blessed to have good teammates to find me in the good position to have the post game, outside game, good vision."
The Bulls wisely have focused on blitzing John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards' top two scorers in the regular season, in pick-and-roll situations to force the ball out of their hands. In turn, Wall and Beal have wisely worked the ball out to the usually open Nene, who has connected on seven of 13 shots (53.8 percent) — including 4-for-4 from the right elbow — between 16 and 24 feet.
Nene scored 24 points, one shy of his playoff career high, in Game 1 and made a career-high seven field goals outside of 10 feet. And in overtime of Game 2, Nene opened the extra frame by burying a jumper on the left side of the foul line and later hit another from the same spot, with Noah hounding him.
"When you're playing at this level, teams are going to take certain things away, and I don't want our guys predetermining anything," coach Randy Wittman said. "Whatever adjustments are made by them, we move the ball, make the simple play and something else is going to be open."
Nene entered the NBA as a bruising interior player who chose to punish the rim with ferocious slams and never ventured much beyond the paint. He
started to take more jumpers in his last three full seasons in Denver, especially after Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic) was traded to New York, but he still felt somewhat stifled offensively with former Nuggets coach George Karl urging him to make his presence felt inside. When he arrived in Washington in March 2012 — in a deadline deal that shipped JaVale McGee and Nick Young and initiated the team's pivot away from rebuilding toward the moment the franchise is currently experiencing — Nene realized that the Wizards would use him differently.
"I didn't have the jump shot that I have right now. I been working the jump shot the last five years … you know, in the summer," Nene said. "I didn't have the opportunity on Denver.""
Nene's ability to spread the floor has also given him the chance to attack the rim, with his emphatic dunk over Carlos Boozer setting the tone for the entire series. His contributions have also been subtle, such as using his long arms and wide frame to cut off the playmaking Noah's passing lanes to force bad passes. And late in Game 2, Nene stole a jump ball in the final seconds by grabbing Taj Gibson's arm with his right hand and securing the possession.
"There's no shortcut," Nene said. "Our mentality is to maintain our focus, maintain the way we're playing, fix our weaknesses and what we've done wrong, and we'll be fine."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun