The big Brazilian forward played the final 77 seconds of the Nuggets' 118-105 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night, marking his return to the court 2½ months after surgery to remove a malignant testicular tumor.
"Everybody was excited to see Nene back out there, just to see him back in his uniform, seeing him smile again after the stuff he's been through," said Carmelo Anthony, who scored 32 points and keyed the decisive run in the Nuggets' fourth straight win.
Nene had been out since Jan. 11, and it's been just over a month since he underwent chemotherapy.
In the locker room afterward, Nene never stopped smiling. He said he's still full of nerves, still absent enough stamina but certainly not lacking any strength.
"I survived, I'm still here," he said. "I'm a new man, stronger than ever, I just say, 'Thank you, everybody.'"
Allen Iverson added 31 points for the Nuggets, who are a half-game behind Golden State for the eighth and final playoff spot, and one game behind the Mavericks. The Warriors visit the Pepsi Center on Saturday night for another big matchup.
"That game's bigger than this game," suggested Anthony.
But this game will long be remembered, too.
When Nene stripped off his warmups and finally entered the game with 1:17 left, he was given a rousing standing ovation and teammate Kenyon Martin embraced him in a bear hug.
"George Karl said, 'Go ahead, enjoy your party,'" Nene said. "It's a special moment in my life."
Nene had hoped to play about five minutes, but those aspirations were dashed when the Nuggets fell behind by 15 points early on.
Besides, it's not as though the Nuggets were looking for a major contribution or even an emotional lift.
"It's not about how he plays," coach Karl, a fellow cancer survivor, said before tip-off. "We're just happy he's back and we're going to celebrate his health, we're going to celebrate his coming off of major cancer surgery, and we're just going to celebrate. This has nothing to do with basketball. We're just happy he's with us."
Iverson said this was a night he'll remember forever.
"He's a teammate, and he's somebody we care about and we want around, but life is so much bigger than basketball," Iverson said. "When it happened to him, it put it more in perspective for me that it's not just about this game, it's about life. It was just a good feeling and I was happy to be a part of it."
Karl said he wanted to cry when Nene got into the game.
"It's worthy of tears," Karl said. "To see him come back, he's a hell of a person and to help him through this, if we can help him play this year, it will be a great story, it'll be a great feeling, it will be a great building block for the character and chemistry of our team."
The Mavericks are 10-9 since acquiring Kidd from New Jersey, but none of the wins was against teams with winning records. Six of their final 10 games are against teams above .500, including two against Golden State.
Dallas fell to 1-1 since losing MVP Dirk Nowitzki indefinitely with knee and ankle injuries.
But the Mavs controlled the tempo for much of the game. Kidd was left unguarded on the left elbow and swished a 3-pointer in the third quarter to give the Mavericks a 79-71 lead.
The Nuggets responded with an 18-2 run, with Anthony scoring half of the points. His breakaway slam dunk gave Denver its first lead since the opening minutes.
Anthony sank four free throws with 3:17 left in the third quarter for an 86-81 lead after Dallas coach Avery Johnson and Howard received technicals for arguing a personal foul on Howard.
"Geez, I'm the only guy in the league that gets a technical by saying one word," Johnson complained. "It wasn't even a bad word. I was asking for a clarification. They have to get some tougher skin."
The Nuggets built their lead to 94-86 after three quarters and weren't threatened again.
Howard surpassed his scoring average of 19.6 points with a 22-point first half, leading Dallas to a 70-60 lead at the break. But without Nowitzki, the Mavericks couldn't keep repelling Denver's runs.
"I don't know if there was a void. Guys stepped up," Kidd said. "We just couldn't keep them off the boards and didn't take care of the ball in that second half."
- Anthony (23 years, 303 days) scored his 9,000th career point. Only LeBron James reached that milestone at a younger age (22 years, 352 days).
- The Mavericks are 1-2 without Nowitzki this season and 16-12 (.571) without him for his career. They're 495-255 (.660) with him.