Long before Sunday's Game 1 tipoff, the first-round series between the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards had fallen victim to a familiar refrain—curious, given the coin-flip nature of the 4-5 pairing: The Bulls are simply too veteran-laden to lose to such a fresh-faced foe.
Following the Wizards' surprising 102-93 win, Washington's 31-year-old Brazilian center might beg to differ.
With his game-high 24 points—tallied to the tune of mid-range jumpers and powerful low-post moves alike—Nene Hilario, who also racked up eight rebounds, three assists, a pair of steals and a block, set the tone for what could fast become a matchup nightmare for the favored Bulls.
Bulls have no answer for Nene as Wizards take Game 1 http://t.co/l2Q2BWDbvD— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) April 21, 2014
Tellingly, it's one Chicago didn't necessarily think it would confront.
From the Bulls' perspective, the key to bottling up Washington's attack was supposed to be two-fold: corral John Wall and his perimeter cohorts in the half court and protect the ball on the offense, thereby preventing the speedy Wizards from converting easy opportunities in transition—something they've done with aplomb all season long.
Chicago checked both of those boxes in Game 1, holding Wall to just 16 points on 4-of-14 shooting and committing only eight turnovers.
That should've been enough to secure a win. Instead, the Bulls enter Game 2 facing a fresh, potentially ominous challenge: stopping Nene from wreaking his versatile brand of offensive havoc.
Not everyone was underplaying Nene's importance, of course. Over at SB Nation, Mike Prada—a Wizards expert if ever there was one—took an incisive, two-way look at the peerless importance of Washington's premier pivot:
We can talk until we're blue in the face about not settling for the mid-range jumpers Chicago wants you to take, and there's a lot of truth to that. That said ... this is the Bulls' defense we're talking about. Sometimes, those are the only shots you get. The Wizards are going to need to make a decent clip of their mid-range jumpers to win this series. Who is the Wizards' best mid-range shooter? Surprisingly, it's Nene. After a poor shooting season last year, Nene bounced back by hitting nearly 47 percent of his shots from 16-24 feet, an outstanding number. In fact, only 10 players that took more than 100 shots from that spot in the entire league were better.
Nene's offensive versatility puts Chicago in a difficult position: Either the Bulls elect to neutralize him with Joakim Noah, thereby routinely drawing their All-Star center and defensive linchpin away from the paint, or take their chances with the defensively inferior Carlos Boozer.
Choosing the former would leave either Boozer or Taj Gibson to defend Marcin Gortat, whose distinct size advantage and equally impressive versatility presents its own, potentially perilous problems.
Gortat's Sunday stat line: 15 points and 13 rebounds.
In this respect, Washington head coach Randy Wittman is right to see the matchup between his point guard and Chicago's two-headed floor general—Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin—as one ripe for the feasting.
By breaking down Chicago's first line of defense and forcing the frontcourt to collapse, the Wizards boast not only a pair of savvy post scorers prime for the timely dump-off but also a bevy of three-point shooters to boot.
Nene's impact is far from one-dimensional, of course. As Prada aptly points out, Nene's ability to defend the high post, where much of Chicago's offense originates—both through pick-and-rolls and Noah's uncanny point-center passing abilities—promises to be paramount.
Even if the Bulls had purposefully overlooked Washington's dreadlocked forward—unlikely, given head coach Tom Thibodeau's almost obsessive attention to defensive detail—you couldn't exactly blame them: Chicago hadn't seen Nene since mid-January, when his solid-if-wholly-unspectacular play helped lead the Wizards to a pair of wins.
By the time the two teams met for their third and final regular-season showdown on April 5 (a decisive 96-78 road win by the Bulls), Nene was still one game away from returning to the lineup after missing the previous month-and-a-half with a sprained MCL.
It's impossible to say what role, if any, potential playoff seeding had in the timing of Nene's return. But given his performance Sunday night, it certainly makes one wonder whether Wittman might not have folded the hand for the sake of the pot.
Those interpreting a Bulls eulogy would be wise to recall last year's first round, when Chicago—then a No. 5 seed—pulled off a pair of road wins en route to upsetting the favored Brooklyn Nets in seven games.
So long as Thibodeau and Noah remain the generals of bench and field, the Bulls have more than enough defensive desire and surplus pride to wear out Washington's will as fast as its welcome.
But so long as a healthy Nene remains in the fray—the veteran brimstone to John Wall's ever-fanning fire—Chicago's hopes will have to hinge on more than merely bullying the kids off the block.