The losing was unbearable, the schedule was unforgiving and the anxiety of unfulfilled expectations was becoming burdensome when Washington Wizards players gathered the morning before they hosted the Minnesota Timberwolves.
With the coaches told to stay away, the players spent nearly 30 minutes hashing out their differences and regaining their focus as they prepared to play a brutal stretch of eight games in 12 days that could either put them on the path toward being a playoff contender or put the season in danger of spiraling out of control.
Six games in, the Wizards (7-8) have already begun to show what they are capable of becoming and spirits are so high that the loss of promising shooting guard Bradley Beal has yet to discourage them. They are on a season-high three-game winning streak, have won five of six overall, and aren’t intimidated about heading to Indiana to play a Pacers team that has the NBA’s best record at 14-1 and has yet to lose a game at home.
“Everybody says they are the best team in the East. Let’s go see,” Trevor Ariza said after the Wizards snuck out of Milwaukee with an ugly 100-92 overtime victory Wednesday night that required them to push through on the road, against a weakened foe and in front of a half-empty arena.
According to his teammates, Ariza called the players-only meeting but he chose to play coy when asked about how it may have influenced the improved play of late. “I must’ve missed that one,” Ariza said. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
John Wall has put together one of the best runs of his career, including three consecutive games with 30 points — something that hasn’t happened for the organization since Antawn Jamison accomplished the feat in December 2009. But the Wizards have hardly been a one-man team over the past six games.
Before going down on Monday with a stress injury in his right leg that could keep him sidelined for at least two weeks, Beal lead the Wizards in scoring with a combined 51 points in the team’s first two wins of the streak, against Minnesota and Cleveland. Nene has scored 20 or more points three times, including chipping in with a career-high 30 on Tuesday in a 116-111 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. The next night, Nene willingly deferred to his bookend big man, Marcin Gortat, who scored a season-high 25 points against the Bucks.
“What matter to us is the victory. It doesn’t matter if you score 30 points and we lose the game. When we win, everybody win. That’s our mentality right now,” Nene said. “That’s the good thing, when we don’t have superstar, you never know who is going to shine in the game. That’s a team.”
The Wizards have also started to regain their identity on defense. After surrendering triple digits in nine of its first 10 games, Washington has held four of its past five opponents to fewer than 100 points. But as Ariza joked, “If we don’t play defense and we have more points than the other team, then our defense was our offense.”
In Milwaukee, the Wizards held the Bucks scoreless for nearly four minutes in the fourth quarter, recording two critical steals that allowed them come back and eventually win in overtime.
“Our defense stepped up, and really got after it,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “We’ve been fighting to get our team back on defense like that for 48 minutes. Last year, we were a pretty solid defensive team, and this year, we have gotten off to a slow start. But it’s coming around. I told them, they screwed up, they proved they could play it. So there is no excuse not to. Sometimes, a coach might think they just can’t play defense. But I know better.
“I’m kind of old school. I still believe defense is going to win you more games than offense is,” Wittman said. “I think that’s been proven over our last world champions, the last 15 years, it’s usually a good defensive team.”
The Pacers have the league’s stingiest defense, anchored by former Georgetown center Roy Hibbert and Paul George, who has emerged as an MVP candidate in his fourth season.
The Wizards’ past three opponents had a combined 13 wins, but winning breeds confidence. They are ready to gauge themselves against the league’s best.
“It’s going to be a big, tough game,” Wall said. “I feel like, the way we’re playing, we’re playing like one of the good teams right now. We believe in ourselves that we have a chance to beat them.”
Wittman can sense that the mood of his team has improved but as a coach, he also has to guard against the next letdown. “It’s a long season. You are going to have ups and downs in a season,” he said. “How you ride that out and how . . . you want to keep the peaks and valleys pretty consistent. You don’t want to get too low and stay down there, and you want to stay as high as you can. You know it’s going to fluctuate, and you have to be able to combat that and be consistent and have a plan.”