Wizards point guard John Wall, who scored 22 points, passes the ball during first-half action against Dallas on Wednesday at Verizon Center. The Mavericks came away with an 87-78 victory. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The person who should be most excited about the Washington Wizards’ turnaround provided the loudest voice of reason. The Wizards don’t want atta-boys for a job that isn’t even half-finished, point guard John Wall explained, because they haven’t accomplished anything yet. But they’re getting there.

“You just can’t get too high right now, because there’s a lot of basketball left,” Wall said. “Do we think we can do something? Yeah. It’s just that we’ve still got work to do.”

That’s clear whenever the Wizards face good teams.

Although the Wizards have made encouraging strides, the Dallas Mavericks reminded them how far they still must go Wednesday night in an 87-78 loss. Attempting to defeat only their second opponent that currently has a winning record, the Wizards faded down the stretch. That’s a problem.

In the pathetic Eastern Conference, only the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks have more victories than losses. If the playoffs began today, the 14-15 Wizards would be seeded fifth in the eight-team field.

The Wizards have proved they can defeat weak teams. Fortunately for them, there aren’t many strong ones in their neighborhood. For the Wizards to reach the heights they hope to achieve, though, they’ve got to perform better against the game’s best.

After winning five of six, the Wizards could have made a strong statement by opening the new year at Verizon Center as they closed the old one: with a victory. The Mavericks appeared to be the right type of opponent to provide exactly what the Wizards needed.

Dallas lacked the muscle inside to match up with Washington big men Nene and Marcin Gortat. The Wizards’ back court of Wall and Bradley Beal also had the edge in size and athleticism. And Mavericks future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki injured his left ankle early en route to scoring only nine points on 3-for-14 shooting.

With so much apparently in their favor, the Wizards failed against the Mavericks (19-13). Why? Because it often takes time for even the most talented groups to produce hits.

After so many years in the Southeast Division basement, the Wizards are moving toward the top slowly. They must crawl before they can walk, though, and that’s what this season is all about. The Wizards are in the process of learning how to achieve success on off nights. They had one shooting against Dallas.

Washington made only 37.5 percent of its shots from the field. It was even worse from behind the three-point arc: 20.8 percent. Those numbers aren’t a formula for success. When elite teams struggle shooting, however, they do other things well — like get to the foul line.

Recognizing the baskets weren’t being kind, the Wizards should have been more aggressive. Driving into the lane, getting opponents in foul trouble and shooting free throws are great ways to affect change. The Wizards shot only 10 free throws in the game. Coach Randy Wittman noticed.

“That’s what we’ve got to learn to get to next . . . the ability to get to the free throw line on tough nights,” Wittman said. “You make a couple of free throws . . . your confidence is tremendously turned around.”

For all the right reasons, the Wizards have been extremely confident lately. After 29 games, the Wizards, based on their awful history, are in a good spot. They overcame a shaky start, losing streaks and injuries to get back on track.

Wall, the Wizards’ franchise player, is playing at the highest level of his career and scored a team-high 22 points against Dallas. Beal had a rough one — 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting — against the Mavericks, but he’s among the NBA’s rising players.

If Beal, injury-prone Brazilian big man Nene, Wall and Gortat stay healthy and stick together, the Wizards have a formidable core. It showed in the team’s climb to finishing 2013 at .500, which was a major accomplishment for the franchise.

“We tried not to focus too much on [.500], but it’s hard,” Beal said of a winning percentage the Wizards rarely have produced. “We just have to continue to do better, and when we get back to .500, we have to be able to give ourselves a push to get over that hump.”

The best thing the Wizards could do is forget about their winning percentage. Just do their jobs and the numbers will be good.

“It’s about playing the right way, playing the way we’ve been playing, like a team,” Wall said. “We’ve been doing a lot of good things. We have to remember that. We keep on doing what we have to, will keep taking those steps.”

On Wednesday, the Wizards took a step backward. But as Wall observed, there’s still a lot of basketball to be played.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.