As the Washington Wizards prepared to take the floor at halftime against the Los Angeles Clippers, JaVale McGee walked up to Trevor Booker and the two bumped fists at chest level, bumped fists above their heads and mimed putting on helmets and snapping on chin straps.
McGee and Booker have begun calling themselves, “the chin strap brothers,” a reference to their commitment to approaching the game with the hard-nose mentality of a football player — even as Booker is still unsure about the new greeting.
“It’s kind of lame, but I’ll do it, just to make him feel good,” Booker said with a laugh about McGee. “Little things like that bring us closer.”
McGee also has a handshake he performs with Nick Young and recently helped Young create a new, imaginary bow-and-arrow motion to celebrate his made three-pointers. The gestures may not influence the outcomes of the games, and are borderline goofy, but they also hint at the camaraderie and confidence that is beginning to form with the Wizards (7-23).
“We’re taking steps. Every day we’re getting better,” veteran forward Rashard Lewis said. “If you play the right way, you always have a chance to win ballgames, regardless of who you’re playing against. And the past couple of games, we’ve been playing the right way.”
Lewis admitted that the Wizards “kind of gave up” in the fourth quarter of their 102-84 loss against the Clippers at Staples Center, but he added they are far from being the team that rolled over during an embarrassing home loss on Feb. 4 to the Clippers.
Since that 107-81 defeat, which was their fourth consecutive loss at the time, the Wizards have gone 3-3 and are slowly starting to display a different mentality on the court. It was evident on Tuesday in Portland, when Lewis, John Wall and Jan Vesely all jumped on the court to fight for a loose ball with the scramble leading to a wide-open three-pointer for Young; and on Wednesday in Los Angeles, when Young drove into the lane, drew a double team, and dumped the ball off to Vesely for a dunk instead of taking an errant jumper.
“We’re coming, we’re learning, we’re filing things away and that’s part of the growing up process. Having that mentality, and you have to have it every night, it’s going to be a war,” said Coach Randy Wittman, who is 5-8 since replacing Flip Saunders. “You’ve got to be ready for it. And when you’re not, you’re going to have nights like you did back in D.C. We’ve seen a steady increase in how we’re playing, we’re playing together. We’re competing night in and night out.”
The Wizards’ only losses over their past six games have been to the red-hot New York Knicks and division-leaders Miami and the Clippers. They won their first two games on this five-game road trip against Detroit and Portland by a combined 36 points, becoming the first team in Wizards/Bullets franchise history to win consecutive road games by at least 15 points. And, with upcoming games against Utah on Friday and Phoenix on Monday, the Wizards just need to win one game to ensure their first winning record on a road trip of five or more games since they went 3-2 March 22-28, 2005.
In the past six games, Wall is averaging 21.8 points on 50.5 percent shooting and 9.8 assists and matched his career high with 15 assists in the win over the Pistons; Young is averaging 21.5 points, scoring a season-high 35 points and connecting on a career-high tying seven three-pointers against the Trail Blazers. And since taking new asthma medicine to accommodate for his increased size, McGee is averaging 20.5 points and 10 rebounds and has three double-doubles in his past four games.
“I think we’re finding our identity. I think everybody is understanding their roles more,” said Booker, whose return to the starting the starting lineup has coincided with the recent run. “We’re a little more confident and we’re playing harder.”
Why is it happening now?
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Booker said.
Wizards notes: The NBA announced the four participants in this year’s slam dunk contest, and neither McGee nor reigning champion Blake Griffin were among the players on the list. Houston forward Chase Budinger, Indiana swingman Paul George, New York Knicks guard Iman Shumpert and Minnesota rookie Derrick Williams — all first-time contestants — will compete for the title on Feb. 25 during All-Star Weekend.
Despite finishing as runner-up last year, McGee was not asked to participate. McGee said on Thursday that he would have participated if invited. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, the NBA wanted to go in a different direction with the dunk contest and didn’t invite any past participants.