INDIANAPOLIS -- As Nene straps on a brace to his left knee before practice, he contemplates a question about exactly when the Wizards turned their season around as they go into Wednesday's Game 2 vs. the Indiana Pacers with a 1-0 lead. The theory: When he sat out for 21 games with a ligament strain for almost two months, returning April 9, this team had to learn to not be dependent on him. And it did.
"Yes," Nene quickly responded when told this hunch. "Yes. You answered the question yourself. A lot of things happen for a reason. To be in the position we are in, we needed our bench to step it up. Circumstances happen for them to find themselves. Our bench responded very well. That’s the reason why we are where we are right now."
In Nene's absence it was Trevor Booker who gained all the starts as the Wizards went 12-9. When Nene returned on a minutes restriction and backed up Booker to end the regular season, the fourth-year power forward continued to play steady. Earlier in the season, the Wizards were 1-6 without Nene.
Booker's finest moment, however, came in Game 4 of the first-round series win vs. the Chicago Bulls. With Nene out with a one-game suspension for fighting, Booker was a spark-plug as the Wizards took a 3-1 lead.
Monday, with Nene struggling because of foul trouble at Indiana, it was Drew Gooden who came in to keep the fire burning for Washington. He finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds in a 102-96 victory. Gooden was acquired as a free agent Feb. 26, after the Wizards created a roster spot by trading Jan Vesely and Eric Maynor for Andre Miller.
The Wizards' bench has other capable players who can be inconsistent, such as Chris Singleton and Kevin Seraphin, but they have fallen out of the rotation. Both could be called on in a pinch, so coach Randy Wittman has options. And that has lightened the load on Nene, who has had issues with foot and knee soreness all season.
"To improve yourself you need to be in the fire to understand how hot it is. if you don't get close to the fire you're not going to feel that feeling," Nene said. "That's the way I think. Our bench had opportunity to show and they got it going. We have players we need. That's the reason we are here."
And at any moment, Al Harrington can come in and make things happen, too. The Wizards have options.