If anyone questioned what kind of series this would be, the Wizards and Bulls provided a pretty resounding answer in Game 1. Led by an incredible effort from Nene on both sides of the floor, Washington won the opening game on Sunday night, 102-93.
As if the first Wizards playoff game in six years could go any other way, it was a close battle that saw Washington win out in the final minutes. On the other hand, coming on the road against a hyper-intense Bulls team, this is precisely how you wanted to see the series start.
It really shouldn't be understated how brilliant the Brazilian big man was in this game. If anyone doubted the kind of impact Nene could have against Chicago's front line, that should have quickly been assuaged during the first half at United Center. Nene went wild from mid-range early on, hitting a number of jumpers as his teammates struggled to get going.
By halftime, Nene had 14 points and five rebounds. He ended up finishing with 24 points on 11-of-17 shooting, in addition to grabbing eight rebounds and dishing three assists. Combined with his effort on the defensive end, where he was key to disrupting Chicago's offensive sets, and it's easy to see why so many considered him the key to the series.
Partnered with Marcin Gortat in the post, those big men carried the Wizards on a night when John Wall and Bradley Beal didn't step up. We've pretty much accepted that Washington goes as its backcourt goes, but Wall and Beal shot just 7-of-25 from the field on Sunday. Instead, it was Nene, Gortat and Trevor Ariza who powered the Wizards in Game 1, combining for 57 points on just 35 shots.
Wall shot just 4-of-14 from the field, while Beal went 3-of-11. The two guards scored more points at the free throw line (17) than they did on the floor, which would be a reason for concern if the rest of the team didn't play so well.
After falling behind at halftime, the Wizards rallied in the third quarter and responded thereafter to whatever the Bulls threw at them. Everyone from D.C. to L.A. knew Chicago wouldn't back down, but the Wizards avoided the lapses in intensity that have often defined their struggles over the past few months.
In the final quarter, the Wizards outscored Chicago, 30-18, showing the kind of focus and effort that's necessary to beat this caliber of opponent. It's the type of performance we waited to get from the team all night, and after falling behind by double-digits in the third quarter, it finally happened.
Now the Wiz are up 1-0 in the series, and have a chance to make a major statement by taking Game 2 at United Center. Returning to Verizon Center with even one victory is a solid accomplishment, though, so it's hard not to be excited by what we saw Sunday night.
If Nene can play, the Wizards can compete. We saw that tonight, and it'll likely define what the team accomplishes this spring. But for one night, the Wizards have a playoff win, their first since 2008. Let's enjoy it.