Beal’s teammates waited patiently, and quietly, as he finished chewing some of his spicy chicken fingers.
Then Beal gave them the answer: “Cupine.”
Players started doubling over and slapping each other as the room once again erupted with laughter. Being back at .500 has certainly elevated the mood amongst the Wizards — who shared the positive vibes on social media by posting a picture of them from the team plane on Twitter — as they entered 2014, but they remain far from their goal.
At 14-14, the Wizards have the franchise’s first non-losing record on Jan. 1 since 2008, but John Wall is hardly satisfied because he can count on one hand, possibly both hands, the number of victories that slipped from Washington’s grasp.
“You expect to be better,” Wall said after Tuesday’s practice, as the Wizards prepared to host the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday at Verizon Center. “I feel like we let games go away but that’s something you learn and you improve from. Only thing you can do is be better in those situations and we’re finding ways to win those tough games that we probably would’ve lost earlier in the year.”
The Wizards have won five of their past six games and currently have the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. During this recent stretch, they have won in New York on a game-winning layup by Beal and rallied from an 18-point first-half deficit in Boston.
On Monday, the Wizards trailed by 12 points with 13 minutes remaining but still rallied to beat the Pistons. The thrilling comeback served as somewhat of a playoff practice for the team because it forced Coach Randy Wittman and his players to make counters to a more determined opponent only two days after drilling Detroit by 24 points at Verizon Center.
“That’s kind of the makeup of the playoffs right there. You can blow a team out the first two games, and the next thing you know, you’re back in their place and the style of play is different,” Martell Webster said. “That’s what playoff basketball is all about. It’s being able to make adjustments on the fly and then responding. That’s what we did. It’s big and we know where we want to be, we know what we’re striving for here. And there is no need for me to say it.”
With the Wizards looking past a modest milestone of having a winning record, Wittman has no plans to remind his players what a win over Dallas would mean for the franchise.
“I don’t think I need to,” Wittman said. “These guys know where they’re at. It’s just, we want to keep continuing to play where we are and playing at a high level. It’s not so much, ‘Hey, let’s get over .500.’ I’ve stated pretty much all year, if we play the way we’re capable of, with the intensity that we can play with, wins and losses take care of themselves and we’ll be where we need to be. Let’s play the way we’re capable of playing, and we’ll be over .500.”
The last time the Wizards had an even record, they quickly slid back into a hole by losing four straight games, including overtime losses to Milwaukee and Atlanta in which they led in the final minute of regulation and another one-point loss to Denver in which they missed three shots and had two turnovers in the final 30 seconds. That losing skid was aided by the absences of Beal, Nene and even Webster for one game, but all are back and the Wizards are close to being whole with the exception of injured reserves Al Harrington and Glen Rice Jr.
Beal and Nene have yet to return to their regular minutes as they continue to recover from injuries to their right fibula and right Achilles’ tendon, respectively, but the Wizards are beginning to find a style of play that works and is predicated on ball movement and defense. Aside from an embarrassing loss in Minnesota that came after a five-day holiday break, the Wizards have been able to stick to the plan.
“We just got to continue to move forward . . . not get complacent with the wins,” Beal said. “We’ve got to continue to play as a team and move forward. We’re back where we want to be, but we have to get over that hump and I think we have a great opportunity in front of us to be able to do something.”
The recent run of success has improved the chemistry and focus of the players, who have their sights set toward a much higher goal that having as many wins as losses.
“I think we all care about where we’re trying to go and we’re trying to get to the playoffs and we’re trying to do some things in the playoffs,” Trevor Ariza said. “In order to do that, every situation that we’re in in the regular season is going to prepare us for that. So we have to play every game serious on the road, at home, everything we have to do has to be a learning experience for us.”