Heading into the Bulls' playoff series against the Wizards, it was impossible to ignore the fact that Washington had won both regular-season games with Nene in the lineup and were blown out in the game he wasn't. While Nene's own performance against the Bulls this season was a mixed bag, just having him there helps solidify the rotations and gives the Wizards more depth.
With Nene apparently healthy and set to return to the starting lineup for the first time since late February, I did have my concerns. I couldn't help but notice how much more effective the Wizards were in general with Nene during my statistical analysis of the team, and when Ricky and I did our Q&A over at Bullets Forever, Nene's presence and prior success against Joakim Noah was brought up on multiple occasions. Furthermore, Mike Prada from Bullets Forever and the mother ship detailed how Nene could be the key to the series.
Sure enough, those concerns came to fruition in Game 1, as Nene dominated the Bulls to the tune of 24 points and eight rebounds while shooting 11-of-17 from the field in a 102-93 Wizards victory. Nene's 24 points were just one short of his playoff career-high, and he looked nothing short of 100 percent in his 35 minutes of action.
Nene set the tone right from the get-go, scoring the first points of the game on a dunk off a nice pass from Bradley Beal in the pick-and-roll. Noah was slow to recover on the roll, while Carlos Boozer was a tad late on his rotation and offered almost no resistance at the rim:
Nene scored eight points in the early going as the Wizards got off to a nice start, doing the majority of his work against Noah. That would be a theme the rest of the game, as Nene really had his way with Noah for most of the night. As previously noted, Noah has had some history struggling against Nene and other strong bigs of his caliber, and the Wizards big man was able to bully Jo several times in the post.
But while Nene had success using his strength down low against Noah, where he also made plenty of hay was on the perimeter. We know the Wizards love taking mid-range shots, and the Bulls are more than happy to allow those kinds of shots. Nearly 45 percent of the Wizards' 74 shots came from mid-range in Game 1, with Nene taking 12 of his 17 shots from mid-range, according to NBA.com's stats page.
The issue was Nene made 7-of-12 of those mid-range attempts, and many of those looks were wide open because the Bulls didn't make enough of an adjustment on their pick-and-roll coverage against him. The Bulls' ICE scheme usually has Noah (or any other big defending the play) drop down instead of aggressively hedging out, which gives some space to take the mid-range jumper. However, Nene was clearly given too much space over the course of the night, with Noah not even offering a contest on numerous occasions. 12 of Nene's 17 shots were uncontested according to SportVU, and he made six of those attempts.
Nene shooting over 58 percent from mid-range may be a bit fluky, however, he did shoot 43.3 percent on the season from mid-range, according to NBA.com's stats page. So while Nene shooting close to 60 percent from mid-range won't happen every game, it would be foolish to expect him to just stopping knocking down open looks at a decent rate if he's given them.
This means some type of adjustment may have to be made, which could leave the Bulls vulnerable in some other areas. The Bulls generally did a nice job on Beal and John Wall, holding them to a combined 7-of-25 shooting. However, more attention paid to Nene could free up more driving lanes for Wall and to a lesser extent, Beal. Allowing Wall to get in the paint opens up the Wizards' offense, and he's arguably the best in the NBA at finding his open shooters on the perimeter. The Bulls only allowed 11 three-point attempts in Game 1, but that number could go up if there's an increased focus on stopping Nene.
I have the utmost faith in Tom Thibodeau making the necessary adjustments in Game 2 to slow Nene and not allow a similar offensive performance from Washington. I also expect Noah to play better, as he seemed a tad off after the death of his longtime mentor. Of course, the bigger issue may be on the other end, where the Bulls floundered down the stretch after looking good during the middle of the game. We'll have more on that later.