Just two weeks ago, it seemed the Washington Wizards were losing so badly, so ugly and so often that their season already had been lost, barely a month after it began. Hopelessness rained down on the court at MCI Center, along with ardent boos from many of the fans.
But suddenly, after Saturday's 95-83 win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the skies have cleared, at least a little bit. With victories over San Antonio, New Jersey and New York--mixed in with a loss to Utah--in their last four games, the Wizards (8-17) have defeated the two teams that played in last season's NBA Finals.
"We all got off to such a bad start, and you look for excuses, but the last two games--to pull the New Jersey game out and [to beat New York] on the road, it's helped us a lot," Coach Gar Heard said. "The guys have a lot of confidence in there, and they think they can win. This is the team I thought I had at the beginning of the season."
Still languishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the Wizards are nowhere near the playoff-caliber team they had hoped to be. And they still have a long way to go before striking fear in the hearts of any of their opponents. Yet they are slowly working their way back to respectability, and upcoming games against Detroit, Houston and Cleveland will give them an opportunity to help their own cause.
Each of those games is winnable if the Wizards stick to the fervent defense and slick ball movement that helped them win in New York on Saturday. After that game, many of the Knicks attributed the result to their own lethargy--"If anybody played soft today, we did," said Latrell Sprewell, referring to Heard's criticism of his own team a few days before--and with New York shooting 38 percent, the Knicks had plenty to be embarrassed about. But the Wizards also deserved credit for the outcome, shooting better against New York than anyone else has this season (49 percent) and fighting for loose balls as late as the final minute of the game.
Washington also stood tough in the face of early adversity. In the past, when a team would make a run like the 8-0 spree the Knicks went on at the beginning of the second quarter, the Wizards tended to fold. But on Saturday, Washington answered the New York run with a 9-2 run of its own, and in the third quarter, the Wizards put the game away with spectacular rebounding and strong shooting.
"Our biggest problem early in the year was that we were getting blown out so early that we didn't really have a chance to win ballgames," Heard said. "This is why I stress defense--I always tell the guys that if we stay in the ballgame, we have a chance to win because I know I have enough guys coming off the bench who can hit open shots."
The Wizards have also been helped by the presence of new starter Jahidi White, who has replaced center Ike Austin in the lineup. White's enthusiasm has energized the team, and his physical game has helped both offensively and defensively.
Overall, however, the best salve for this team seems just to have been the recent wins, with each victory breeding a little more confidence.
"We have confidence, and we're having fun--no one has fun when you're losing, and that's a big difference right there," Juwan Howard said. "That West Coast trip we had was tough, and sometimes when you are losing and you are not doing good, you start to take it out on your family and friends. It's a lot of wear and tear on you mentally.
"When we are winning, my family says I'm the best person to be around. When we lose, I'm down, I don't like to talk too much, I kind of go into a shell because I get depressed." And now? "Trust me, after this, I'm going to be a very good family man."