Playoffs 2017: West First Round -- Rockets (3) vs. Thunder (6)
Houston Rockets go retro in unleashing Nene's brute force to take Game 4 from Oklahoma City Thunder
With James Harden slowed by bum ankle, Rockets center takes charge with perfect 12 for 12 performance
OKLAHOMA CITY — The New Age team went Old School.
The Jetsons turned into the Flintstones.
On an afternoon that couldn’t have been more of a throwback if there were prehistoric creatures roaming the court, the Rockets were fortunate to have one.
He was big. He was strong. He was mighty. He was brutally effective. He breathed fire.
OK, maybe not the last one. But the Rockets backup center and designated hit man was a sizzling 12-for-12 shooting, which tied the NBA playoff record for most field goals without a miss and practically burned down the house at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“It was kind of a man’s game and he’s a man,” said coach Mike D’Antoni. “He was unbelievable in all facets. That’s Nene. It doesn’t surprise me.”
There are times when all of the analytics and the pace-and-space and highfalutin 21st century numbers games preached by the Houston nerd bureau needs to be crumpled up into a paper ball and tossed.
Which is what Nene did. He tossed aside any and everybody in an OKC uniform that crossed his path, knocking them over in their orange uniforms like they were traffic cones and he was a tank. He took interior feeds from James Harden for dunks. He followed up missed jumpers by his teammates for dunks. He went into the brutal rugby style scrums in the paint and ripped away rebounds for more dunks.
Nene did everything in the 113-109 win that gave the Rockets a 3-1 lead in the series except drag the Thunder back to his cave and beat them over the head with a club.
“This game we came and played physical, we made shots and we stopped defenders. We exploited their weakness.”
Rockets backup center Nene
“He was able to gather up a lot of stuff and dunk it,” D’Antoni said. “He was terrific. When we got him, everybody said that if he could stay healthy that he could be one of the best centers in the league.”
If he could stay healthy.
The 34-year-old from Sao Carlos, Brazil hadn’t missed fewer than 15 games in any season since 2010-11 as his body frequently wore down and wore out from his relentless attacking style and physical play.
But when you’re trying to fit together all the pieces of a contending team, sometimes you have got to take a chance and just have faith.
“I was in L.A. with my wife last summer on the day when we knew Nene was making his decision where to sign as a free agent,” said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. “I was in a panic. I had talked to his American agent, his Brazilian agent, everybody I could think of and all I could do was wait. We knew he was what our team needed in the middle, that physical presence. We thought with the right plan we could try to rest him and keep him healthy for the playoffs and a game like this.”
They brought him into town before training camp and head trainer Jason Biles did a baseline evaluation and began to work on a program for Nene. He has toiled tirelessly in the weight room all season long with sports performance chief Javair Gillette.
“He lifts before games, after games, on practice days, on off days,” said senior vice president of basketball operations Keith Jones. “I don’t know when I’ve seen anybody work that hard in the weight room.”
“He is my mentor, believe it or not,” said Harden. “I watch him every single day as he puts the work in. He is a true vet.”
D’Antoni and the coaching staff treated Nene through the regular season like a hothouse orchid. Well, a really-muscled hothouse orchid. But they limited him to just 17.9 minutes per game, his fewest in a decade and gave him 15 nights off, mostly on back-to-backs.
There was a time when they were going to need Nene and this was it. You’d be tempted to call Game 4 a street-fight, except that street-fights aren’t usually as rough and dirty. There were raked eyes, elbows to the throat, knees to the back and all the usually pushing, shoving and grabbing. That was just the first quarter, an atmosphere that would have Nene licking his chops like a wolf over a plate of pork chops and then devouring 28 points and 10 rebounds in just over 25 minutes off the bench.
On a day when Harden’s mobility was limited by a bum ankle and he shot just 5-for-16, Nene was the rock. He even stepped into Harden’s closer role as the Rockets’ leading fourth quarter scorer with of his 10 points.
“This game is a lot of physicality,” Nene said. “Physicality is ability and ability is there. We try and stick with it. We understand that last game we missed a lot of defensive-centered scenarios. This game we came and played physical, we made shots and we stopped defenders. We exploited their weakness.”
Nene has been doing it since he was the No. 7 pick way back in the 2002 draft. There are older players in the league, but Mike Dunleavy and Matt Barnes are the only others remaining from his draft class.
When teammate Ryan Anderson was told that Nikoloz Tskitishvili was drafted three spots ahead of Nene, he replied: “Who is that and how old are you?”
Old enough to know that there is always one more play to be made. So, after OKC’s Steven Adams intentionally missed the back end of a pair of free throws and Russell Westbrook banged home a deep 3 to shockingly cut the Rockets’ lead to 108-107 with 18.4 seconds left, he hustled down the floor to take a feed from Trevor Ariza, was fouled, but dropped in a tough layup and sealed it.
“That’s who he is,” Harden said. “That’s why we got him.”
Old School for a New Age.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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