Here is why this Washington Wizards team is so different than teams of the recent past.
At the end of Thursday night's 105-102 victory over the Utah Jazz, the Wizards had two players on the court with eight NBA championships between them (Michael Jordan and Tyronn Lue). Two others have played for league titles (Bryon Russell and Charles Oakley) and Jerry Stackhouse has had more than a few postseason cups of coffee.
That big-game experience is the reason, some players and coaches said yesterday, that the Wizards were able to pull out a white-knuckle fourth quarter against Utah. It's also why players and coaches feel much more secure in their ability to win close games.
"It was like [Coach] Doug Collins was there but the onus wasn't on him to make the decisions and that's where experience is important," Stackhouse said. "We noticed how things would happen. We decided how we were going to play those last few possessions. That's trust. We knew all the guys out there would play the game the right way to try to win the game."
The Wizards, who face the Miami Heat tonight at MCI Center, seemed to gain confidence during a nearly seven-minute stretch in the fourth quarter against the Jazz, when Oakley, who had not played in eight games, stepped on the floor and totally changed the game with his presence.
"In years past the fans probably may have left early," said Jordan, who played a season-high 34 minutes. "Now they're starting to see that this team is willing to go the extra mile to get a win. Things are changing. If we lose, we're going to lose with everybody giving 110 percent. If we win that means everybody's going to contribute. This is a different situation for us and I feel very confident about this team."
Washington had blown a 21-point lead, then, down six, tempers got hot. But poise and execution remained relatively intact, allowing the Wizards to rally. They also boasted a toughness that Collins, Jordan and General Manager Wes Unseld desperately wanted to acquire this summer when they were busy overhauling the roster.
"We were ready to fight if we had to," Lue said.
Now it's time for the younger players such as Kwame Brown, Brendan Haywood, Jared Jeffries, Juan Dixon and Etan Thomas to feed off the veterans' cues, players and coaches said.
"They should understand exactly how things are done from here on out from the simple fact of what Oakley did," Lue said. "He hadn't played [but nine minutes] all season, his name is called and he's ready.
"If he didn't check in the game I don't think we would have won. He brought toughness, he boxed out [Karl] Malone, had a big strip on John Stockton. Young guys should learn to stay ready when their names are called."
If any player isn't ready, Collins said, playing time could be altered. Though it's early in the season, many players have gotten several chances to step forward. Players will still get some slack to grow and learn but lethargic effort and poor play could prompt the playing-time leash to shorten.
"There's no greater pressure than peer pressure," Collins said "I played for Coach [Hank] Iba, who used to always tell me, 'Son, if you won't get it done your substitute will.' Minutes become precious so when you have them you want to make good use of them."
The starting lineup won't change, however. Oakley will remain a situational player and players such as Jeffries, Lue, Christian Laettner and Larry Hughes might not get significant playing time in certain situations because of matchups, Collins said.
One thing will change: Collins said he wouldn't let Jordan play 34 minutes again any time soon. Before the season Collins said he would try to limit Jordan to about 30 minutes a game to prevent wear and tear on his surgically repaired right knee.