A lot of little things have factored into the Washington Wizards' string of six victories in seven games, a stretch that has them perched a game over .500 at 19-18. Among those, count Larry Hughes's emergence as a reliable third scorer, the second-quarter production from Kwame Brown and Etan Thomas and Charles Oakley's ability to change the tenor of a game's final minutes without being an option on offense.
Possibly the most overlooked contributions, though, have come from power forward Christian Laettner, 34, another veteran who has helped stabilize the Wizards.
"Laet's been playing his best ball over the past month," guard Jerry Stackhouse said. "He's doing things to help us, whether that's stepping up and hitting shots, making good passes, making good decisions. Now he's doing a better job of rebounding for us."
In two of Washington's last three games, Laettner set and then matched his season high for rebounds (11). He hit three late field goals every time the Chicago Bulls pulled within one in the Wizards' 101-98 home victory Wednesday, then had four rebounds and blocked Allan Houston's jump shot with 11/2 minutes left in Washington's 89-84 victory over the Knicks on Saturday night in New York.
His ability to play off of teammates, to not make mistakes and to come up with those two or three plays that always factor into the outcome is what coaches and players said has made a huge difference over the past few weeks.
"I feel like I'm playing pretty well," said Laettner, who is averaging 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds. "It's all about getting comfortable. I'm trying to play defense. I'm trying to rebound and play hard. That's more important than anything else."
The one thing he isn't doing enough is shooting, his teammates said.
"We are trying to get him to go ahead and just shoot," Hughes said. "He's got to shoot that jump shot."
Imagine, an NBA player being told to shoot. What in the name of Allen Iverson is going on here?
Laettner, the team's fifth-leading scorer, routinely finds himself open from his high-post position 15 to 18 feet from the basket. However, because the Wizards run so many plays after he takes passes around the foul line at the beginning of their offensive sets, he looks to get higher-percentage shots for Stackhouse, Hughes and Michael Jordan instead of firing away.
The thing is, Hughes, Jordan or Stackhouse usually are being heavily guarded, sometimes double-teamed, and that typically leaves Laettner alone to shoot.
"It's knowing how to play the game and how to create space and not get in people's way," Laettner said of why he sometimes hesitates to take a quick shot, opting instead to let the called play develop. "I help the team out in the sense of our spacing, which helps fluidity or whatever. People don't talk about that enough, how important that is to a game, especially when you're playing with Michael and Stackhouse.
"Still, they want me to shoot my open jumper and it will be there because of Jordan and Stackhouse -- just get rid of the shot, just shoot it."
Laettner opened the season on the bench but was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Brown around the same time Jordan became a starter in late November, amid a six-game losing streak. By getting into the flow of a game early and knowing he's going to get a steady diet of about 25 to 30 minutes, Laettner said his game is rounding into form.
Laettner said he feels better than he did after about 20 games last season, when he also hit a nice stride, then broke his leg and missed 25 games. He failed to make the same impact upon his return.
Now, though, Laettner is viewed as a vital cog.
"I think Christian likes what's going on, I think he likes our team and the way we're playing," Coach Doug Collins said. "I've always said, when Christian is emotionally involved he's a good player. Christian's the kind of guy where if he doesn't like what's going on, he detaches himself a little bit, but this has been the best he's played.
"I love to see him having fun, to take a big shot and hit it and show emotion. It's good to see him invested and having fun."