HOUSTON (AP) — Nene has spent 15 years in the NBA and many still struggle in pronouncing his name.
Count ABC's broadcasting team of Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson among the offenders. As Houston's backup center made play after play on Sunday they repeatedly called him "NAY-NAY," something many of his teammates also do routinely.
It's been happening for years, but for the record the proper pronunciation is "neh-NAY" according to the Rockets media guide.
There is no confusion, however, on the impact the Brazilian has had in helping the Rockets to a 3-1 lead over the Thunder in their first round playoff series. He scored a career playoff-best 28 points and tied an NBA record for most field goals without a miss in a postseason game by making each of his 12 shots on Sunday.
"In every category he checks it off," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We need his toughness. (Sunday) was a man's game and he's a man. Just a terrific performance, but it's been like that all year."
He was known by Nene Hilario when Denver drafted him and he became the first Brazilian selected in the first round, but he legally changed his name to Nene that summer.
The 34-year-old was reticent to discuss his big game on Monday, shaking his head when asked about scoring the most points he has in a postseason game since finishing with 25 for the Nuggets in 2009.
"When I step on the court I try to do my best to help my team and my teammates and make the right decisions," he said.
However, his friends and family made it difficult for him to simply pretend like it was any other game .
"I've been receiving a lot of texts and (that made me) realize a little bit," he said.
With MVP candidate James Harden scoring just 16 points as he struggled with a sore ankle, Nene filled in the scoring gap. His performance helped the Rockets to a 113-109 win and gave them an opportunity to advance to the second round in Game 5 on Tuesday night. He also had a season-best 10 rebounds on Sunday and has made 23 of 25 shots this postseason to lead the NBA playoffs in field goal percentage.
"You have to have guys like that on your team that know how to take care of themselves on and off the court, (and) how to respond to physical games," D'Antoni said. "It's all cute and fun when you're dancing around, but when it gets down to mudslinging it's nice to have a guy like that in the back alley with you and that's where he's been really good."
When D'Antoni is asked about Nene, he invariably brings up his strength and toughness. Looking at the 6-foot-11, 250-pound Nene it's easy to see why. He appears to be in the best shape he's been in years. Though there's grey peppered throughout both his goatee and flowing dreadlocks, he possesses the biceps of a bodybuilder— bulging muscles with thick veins straining against his taut skin.
His great shape could be in part because competition started early for him this season when he suited up for Brazil in the 2016 Olympics. However, he said it's more likely the extra work he puts in to fight off Father Time.
"I've been playing for 15 years at that kind of level and that kind of intensity because I take care of myself," said Nene, who just finished his first regular season with the Rockets. "I have a little extra motivation. I've been through a lot of adversity. When you get older you have to take better care of yourself."
Though Nene, who had to battle testicular cancer in 2008, averaged just 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds a game while backing up Clint Capela, no one was surprised with his performance in game 4. Whether it's his work behind the scenes mentoring Capela or the fact that he's usually the first one at the gym every day, the Rockets didn't need him to lead the team in scoring to know his worth.
"He does an unbelievable job of taking care of his self and he knows how far he can push himself and he knows his body," D'Antoni said. "That's being a veteran and understanding how to win and understanding what it means in the playoffs to play."
While Harden is the Rockets unquestioned leader, everyone contributes. Houston has had one or more players other than Harden score at least 20 points in each of its four playoff games, capped by Nene's performance.
"They've been having that confidence all year long," Harden said of his teammates. "I've been having that confidence in them and that's how we've been playing all along."
It's how Nene has been playing for 15 years.
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