The turmoil and rough early schedule that had the potential to cause the Washington Wizards to self-combust suddenly have become rallying points. Players cite that adversity as a test that will make them a better team.

"It's good it happened early," said Juwan Howard, who last week expressed his desire to play power forward instead of small forward, and was one of several players who took offense to Coach Gar Heard referring to them as "soft" after a loss to Utah.

"We could have folded, but we realized it's early," Howard said. "We have a long season ahead of us but this is the time to win ballgames.

"You hope you don't revisit that stuff. We can't predict a happy future and we're still going to hit some bumps in the road, but it's good right now. We played a lot of tough teams early, and now the confidence is better. The chemistry is coming along, too."

The changed outlook for the Wizards (8-17) is a result of winning three of their last four games, including victories over NBA finalists San Antonio and New York. Washington can post its first three-game winning streak since last February with a victory tonight at Detroit.

The Wizards may have to face the Pistons without point guard Rod Strickland, who has a sinus infection.

Strickland has been sick since before last Saturday's game against the Knicks. He made the trip to Detroit and was expected to play, but he did not practice yesterday and may come off the bench behind Chris Whitney.

Strickland's playing status will be determined today after the team's morning practice.

Regardless of Strickland's availability, the Wizards are confident they can perform well enough to win. Players have made the same claim several times this season, but with the team playing so well since Jahidi White replaced Ike Austin at center two games ago, there seemingly is sincerity behind their words.

"We've been working hard for a while and at times we've been doing well, but we just haven't got the wins," said White, who has averaged 17 points and nine rebounds since moving into the starting lineup. "Now we're getting wins. Now we're expecting to win."

The Wizards have set a goal of posting a .500 record. For a team that twice has been 11 games under .500 this season, mediocrity is optimistic, but attainable. No timetable has been set, but should Washington even its record by the end of the season, it could advance to the playoffs since the Eastern Conference is so muddled.

In the 1988-89 season, the first full season as head coach by current general manager Wes Unseld, Washington also opened with a 8-17 record. It finished 40-42, twice reaching the .500 mark along the way, but failed to advance to the postseason.

Heard said he senses his team's growing faith in itself, but players must realize things are going to get tougher, he said. Washington might have caught the New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks off guard with White, a second-year player, at center.

"He's learned to use his body well," Heard said of White. "He's not picking up silly fouls any more. He plays down low and we're getting him the ball down there, and it's opened things up for our shooters and everyone else.

"When we post Juwan up, they're afraid to leave Jahidi because he's there for the offensive rebound. They're also afraid that if they leave him to double-team, he'll be open for the entry pass. Juwan had six assists against New York, three to Jahidi."

Said Howard: "We're a confident team right now and if you have confidence in the NBA, it goes a long way. Everyone in this league is talented, so you can have problems if you're not headstrong. I think this is a headstrong team right now."

Wizards Notes: Rookie guard Richard Hamilton (sprained right pinkie) practiced for the first time in more than a week yesterday. Since he missed the past five games rehabilitating the injury, he is eligible to come off the injured list. It is doubtful that he will see action tonight, Heard said. . . . Heard would like to assess Hamilton's performance at practice Wednesday in Houston. If Hamilton looks ready, he could be activated for Thursday's game against the Rockets, Heard said.

When Hamilton is activated, the Wizards will have to place a player on the injured list to clear a roster spot. Guard Reggie Jordan, a defensive specialist, has backed up starter Mitch Richmond since Hamilton injured his finger Dec. 8. . . . This will be the first time Heard has faced Detroit as the Wizards' coach. He was a lead assistant coach to Pistons Coach Alvin Gentry last season.