Following their 89-86 loss to Atlantic Division-leading Miami on Saturday night, the Washington Wizards' players said that even in defeat, the inspired performance was one to build upon.

The action behind the words remains to be seen. Washington plays at New Jersey (2-12) tonight, and should the Wizards improve on their previous showing, they could be in position to claim their second road victory of the season and avenge a humiliating 112-87 loss to the Nets on Nov. 7.

If the Wizards regress, things could only get worse because their December schedule is a difficult one.

"I'm putting a lot of emphasis on this game because we have a chance to make up some ground," Coach Gar Heard said. "We're getting ready to head out West and play some tough teams. We have to win some games now."

So far, the Wizards have done nothing to make anyone believe they can learn from the past. Their only reliable quality has been their inconsistency. After a spirited comeback in losing by three points to the Orlando Magic on Nov. 6, the Wizards were blown out by New Jersey. Then, after ending a seven-game losing streak by defeating Toronto--one of the Eastern Conference's better teams--on Nov. 18, the Wizards lost a home game against the Clippers by nine points two nights later.

The Wizards responded by winning two consecutive games, the second a victory at Philadelphia for their first road win in 14 games. So much for momentum.

The Wizards went to Charlotte last Friday and lost, 118-85, in perhaps their most uninspired performance of the season. Washington then played decently against Miami, only to lose in the waning seconds.

"I don't know whether this team is that fragile or not, but when things go bad, things really go bad," Heard said. "We have had too many peaks and valleys and we're having too many valleys and not enough peaks. We have to get more consistent."

Establishing consistency is the problem, and it's nothing new. The Wizards were plagued with similar problems last season when they never won more than three in a row and finished 18-32.

"We've got to play like we can," center Ike Austin said. "We've got to do it defensively and we've got to get the ball to the guys who need it to score and that's Juwan [Howard], Mitch [Richmond] and Rod [Strickland]. We can't have everybody out there thinking about scoring. When teams make a run at us, we've got to stop it quickly, either by playing better defense, doing something in our half-court offense or by calling a timeout or something. When teams start running on us, they keep running."

Instead of maintaining effort and focus for a game or two, the Wizards may want to narrow the scope from quarter to quarter. Against the Hornets, Washington led late in the first quarter, then scored just eight second-quarter points to fall behind 63-32. In the four games played Nov. 20-26, Washington was outscored 120-57 in the second quarter.

Said Richmond: "More important than anything, we don't want to get ourselves in a hole. When we get ourselves in a hole it's really tough to get back. If we come out the right way, we usually keep it close and in the end we're right there. We've got to build off the Miami game. They wanted to jump out on us early because they knew that if they got us in a hole we'd be in trouble. We played pretty good defense and did a lot of good things in that game. We're so up and down, though. The good thing right now is if you look at everyone's record in the East, they're 6-6, 6-7, 7-6. We still have an opportunity to be in the mix."

The mediocrity of the Eastern Conference could be Washington's saving grace. Other than Miami, Toronto, Charlotte and Milwaukee, every team in the East is .500 or worse.

"If we can get on a roll, anything is possible," Heard said.

Wizards vs. New Jersey Nets

Where: Continental Airlines Arena.

When: 7:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: HTS; WTEM-980.

Records: Wizards 4-10, Nets 2-12.

Injuries: Wizards -- G Laron Profit (tendinitis left knee), F Lorenzo Williams (recovering from knee surgery), C Calvin Booth (strained right hamstring) are on the injured list; Nets -- F Scott Burrell (sore left knee) is questionable, G Kerry Kittles (sore right knee) is doubtful, G Kendall Gill (bruised left foot), C Evan Eschmeyer (torn right pectoral), F Jayson Williams (recovering from right leg surgery) are on the injured list.