It's odd. Once I realized that the Washington Wizards would be committing to the four out, one in, brand of basketball they implemented so successfully in the playoffs, I (and many others) assumed that naturally, Marcin Gortat would be the "one in." The seven-foot center thrived in a similar system in Phoenix, with a similar (-ish) point guard in Steve Nash, where his speed and ability to finish with both hands on either side of the rim lead him to career highs in both points and rebounds. It was natural for him to start at center this season, just as he has the previous two years.
Yes, the Wizards lost to the Knicks on Saturday in demoralizing fashion, and it's clear that something has to change in order for this team to reach the potential they showed in the preseason. But the team did play well in Milwaukee on Friday, mounting a valiant comeback with three starters sitting on the bench. Bradley Beal get's the lion's share of the credit here (and rightfully so, he was incredible), but what stood out to me when re-watching the game was just how active Nene was defensively, using his speed and smarts to throw the Bucks motion offense into disarray.
For a moment in that fourth quarter in Milwaukee, the Wizards showed exactly what type of team they could become this year -- a defensive juggernaut that forces bad shots and counters with quick threes. Surprisingly enough it was Nene, and not Gortat, who was at the center of this impressive run. Is it possible that the same small ball lineup that was supposed to allow Marcin Gortat to flourish offensively could also be the lineup that allows Nene, at 33, to finally showcase his defensive savvy?
To demonstrate my point, let's take a look back four consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter, where Nene's defense would spark a run that would erase Milwaukee's 10 point lead in just over a minute.
8:40 Left in the 4th, Wizards trail Milwaukee 84 - 94
The comeback starts here. Up by ten and in possession of the ball, the Bucks run Greivis Vasquez off of a Giannis Antetokounmpo/Miles Plumlee double pick across the free throw line. It's a great play by the Bucks, but Nene plays this wisely, using his quickness to cover three players at the same time: Giannis on the roll, Vasquez driving, and Plumlee popping out to the top of the key, and still manages to corral the rebound at the end of the possession.
The mobility that made a younger Nene such a can't miss talent is on full display here, using textbook fundamentals and one-of-a-kind foot speed to prevent the lob to Giannis, meet Vasquez at the charge circle, and close out on a popping Miles Plumlee.
8:14 Left in the 4th, Wizards trail Milwaukee 86-94
After a monster dunk by Nene, he puts together another nice defensive play for someone of his size, following Jerryd Bayless all the way to the rim and forcing the kick-out to Giannis -- who Jared Dudley coerces into committing his fifth foul of the game.
7:41 Left in the 4th, Wizards trail Milwaukee 89-94
This is when things get crazy. Nene covers nearly the entire court on this possession, protecting the paint against a baseline cut, containing a driving Jerryd Bayless and tipping away his dribble. He then retreats to defend the Plumlee as the roll man, and then ultimately drawing a possession-ending charge on Greivis Vasquez.
7:24 Left in the 4th, Wizards trail 92-94
For the fourth consecutive possession, Nene covers an impressive amount of space defensively, hedging away Vasquez as the pick and roll ball handler. A bad closeout by Dudley allows for Johnny O'Bryant to find a path to the rim, but Nene beats him to the spot, forcing the kick-out and a missed jumper.
On the next possession, Beal would hit a three to make the score 95-94 Wizards, and in the blink of an eye the Wizards are back in the game. The crowd is silent, the Bucks are frustrated, and the Wizards have recaptured the game's momentum, which they would eventually ride to a 118-113 victory.
These are the type of runs the Wizards have to be able to produce if they want to become one of the league's elite teams, and they all start on the defensive end. The ability to string together four or five consecutive brilliant defensive possessions is what differentiates teams like Golden State from the rest of the league. And with Nene holding it down at center, they just might be able to do that.