Two of Ernie Grunfeld's most controversial moves in the John Wall era centered around the Wizards' starting big men. First, he acquired Nene in a move that received a fair share of criticism because of Nene's hefty contract and the organizational philosophy shift to start surrounding John Wall with veterans instead of young talent. Then, last year Grunfeld gave up Emeka Okafor and a first round draft pick to acquire Marcin Gortat, in another move that was seen as dubious at the time because of what the Wizards gave up to acquire someone coming off a poor season in Phoenix.
Despite the criticism that came with both moves, the Wizards showed Friday they're better off as a result of the trades. As time has passed, Nene and Marcin Gortat have come together to form a big, physical frontcourt that proved to be the difference for the Wizards against Chicago on Friday night.
Bradley Beal expressed his gratitude for the advantage Nene and Gortat provided after the game. He said "Our biggest key was to make sure we played physical, and to make sure we hit [Pau] Gasol and [Joakim] Noah whenever possible, just to get them uncomfortable. I think our bigs did a tremendous job of guarding them, and making them put the ball on the floor and take tough shots. We definitely have to tip our hat off to our bigs."
At first, it appeared the Wizards might not have an advantage against the Bulls' vaunted frontline. With the addition of Pau Gasol, the Bulls have formed one of the biggest frontcourts in the league as Pau shares the court with a defensive savant and rebounding fiend at center in Joakim Noah. Both of these players not only provide deterrence at the rim with their size, but are crafty as distributors and help their teams on the offensive end. In their first meeting this season, they proved to be the difference in the Bulls' 99-91 win.
However, in the second meeting the tides turned, as Nene and Gortat outmuscled the Bulls from start to finish in their 102-86 win on Friday. This physicality shown by Nene and Gortat was visible in their stats. They combined for 36 points, 24 rebounds, and 3 blocks. The rebounding numbers in particular were impressive against a team like Chicago, who came into the game fourth in the NBA in rebounding rate.
Nene's dominance, was nothing new to Wizards fans that tuned into the playoffs last year. He eviscerated Joakim Noah, who had just recently won Defensive Player of the Year, from start to finish in the series. He was too big and too strong for the nimble Noah to handle. Nene had a repeat performance on Friday night. Once again, he scored in a variety of ways, whether it was his jumper, on post ups, pick and roll, you name it, Nene did it. He also maintained his usual dominance on the defensive end and had a season-high 11 rebounds.
Marcin Gortat was appreciative of Nene's efforts, saying "I think it was the first time in two years that he ends up with 10+ rebounds and I end up with 10+ rebounds. I think that is probably the dream of every coach to have two big men who can dominate a game like that."
Gortat also had possibly his best game of the season, with 21 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocks. He picked up his 12th double-double of the season and got the best of Bulls' frontcourt, whether it was Noah, Gasol or Taj Gibson. He was able to get where he wanted on the court, whether it was on dunks, putbacks, or jumpers.
After the Bulls outplayed the Wizards in their previous meeting this season, Gortat played a huge role in limiting the Bulls starting frontcourt, especially Pau Gasol, in the rematch. Gasol only had 12 points on 5-12 shooting on Friday, and Gortat made it clear after the game last month's disappointment was fresh on his mind. "Listen, NBA is about people having big temper and egos, you know" he said. "Me and Nene we definitely got egos, we ain't gonna let anybody just come in here and punk us like that..they did one time and we didn't like that , so you know, we were waiting for this game."
This ego, as Gortat describes, showed in the swagger and confidence both showed as they outplayed one of the NBA's most challenging frontlines. Friday night, the Wizards reminded everyone they are not just a run and gun team relying on John Wall's speed to run past teams. They also have two gritty, physical bigs who can outplay any big man pairing in the league when they need to get down and dirty.