With three victories in their past four games, including their first back-to-back wins since April, are the Washington Wizards coming together as a team? Or have they merely beaten two struggling teams and another team that claimed it did not take them seriously?
"We've got two real good tests coming up, so we'll see where we're at," point guard Rod Strickland said.
The Wizards' recent victories have come against Toronto--forward Charles Oakley said the Raptors lost because they overlooked Washington--Vancouver and the Allen Iverson-less Philadelphia 76ers.
Tonight the Wizards (4-8) will face the Hornets (7-5), who are tied for the Central Division lead, in Charlotte. Saturday they will play the Atlantic Division-leading Heat in Miami.
"Every game we play is going to be a test," forward Michael Smith said. "We've just got to believe that we can beat Charlotte and Miami and do the little things to win. We need to put it in our heads that if we do our best, we're going to win."
The Wizards say their recent success stems from a groundswell of confidence. Players are finally getting healthy and are learning to trust one another, they said.
Earlier in the week, majority owner Abe Pollin and General Manager Wes Unseld said a lack of team chemistry caused Washington to open with seven losses in eight games. However, in time the chemistry would get better, they said.
"Everybody's getting familiar with each other," Smith said. "I think now we're starting to understand what we have to do, and we're understanding our roles."
More specifically, players and Coach Gar Heard said Strickland's heightened play of late has trickled down to his teammates. In the Wizards' past two games Strickland had 22 points, 16 assists and 9 rebounds.
He has been more aggressive pushing the ball up the court and creating opportunities for his teammates. Equally--if not more--important have been Strickland's defensive intensity and overall scrappiness, Heard said. He has four steals, chased down loose balls and harassed opposing players into numerous turnovers.
"I think the guy that's leading things is Rod," Heard said. "Rod has stepped up the last two ballgames and played great."
Added Smith: "He's the leader of this team. He's got to get everybody involved in their games and run the show. That's what Rod's doing, and you see what's happened."
Strickland, whose failure to practice because of ailments and injuries last week cost him a start and created a mild standoff with Heard, said the key to his surge is his conditioning.
"My body is feeling good," he said. "Offensively I'm struggling, but that's going to come. Right now I'm not comfortable in the offense, but hopefully I'm turning the corner."
Strickland's teammates have fed off his energy, particularly guard Mitch Richmond, who has come off the bench and been a major factor in the fourth quarter of the Wizards' past two victories.
Richmond totaled 31 points in the past two games and he came up with five steals Wednesday against the 76ers. Soon he will be reinserted into the starting lineup in place of rookie Richard Hamilton, Heard said.
There is optimism that the talented veteran back court may be on the verge of big things.
"I think personally, just for us [mentally], it's been good," Strickland said of him and Richmond playing well together of late. "The more good plays you make, the more comfortable you become on the court and it carries over."
Said Heard: "Those guys are feeling a lot more comfortable on the court. Rod is getting in much better shape and Mitch is beginning to feel comfortable. Those guys are beginning to play together like they know they're supposed to play. We've got two great guards, and once I get those guys healthy and on the court together you'll see a lot of good things."