For all of their early season hubris, the Washington Wizards are a much quieter bunch now. They know better than to tell you or Cleveland or LaVar Ball how good they are. Before the next time they partake in hype, they will stand in the back of the line and make sure there's no chance of being poisoned.
Humbled by disappointment and still recovering, the Wizards can appreciate understatement. They have won three games in a row for the first time since mid-November. They are 5-1 over their past six games and 8-3 since John Wall returned from a knee injury, including victories over Boston and Houston. Normally, this would be enough success for them to bark warnings to the rest of the NBA, but they're starting to understand that they can't force their way into the league's elite with swagger and a few marquee wins. They will earn such stature only by sustaining high performance over a long period.
"We can say it, but when the game gets here, it's all about us going out there and competing," Wall said. "Every game is always going to be different."
Have the Wizards finally arrived as a team capable of building upon last season's 49-33 campaign?
"No, we still have to focus on playing every game," Coach Scott Brooks said. ". . . We should go into every game expecting to win and playing hard and giving ourselves a chance to win. If you don't play hard, you have no chance."
Okay, so they're still en route. Does anyone have an ETA?
"Let's talk after 10, 20 more games," center Marcin Gortat said. "We'll see what's going to happen."
We'll see. It's the most encouraging thing they have said all season.
Slowly, the Wizards are starting to resemble the team it should be: a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference, one superior to the low-level playoff contenders and seeming like it belongs next to Cleveland, Boston and Toronto as a front-runner. The key phrase is "starting to," however. Even Washington's recent improvement comes with games that make you hesitate, such as the 35-point loss at Brooklyn and a 14-point setback against Atlanta. It speaks to the depths of the Wizards' inconsistency that they could have such low moments even during their best stretch of the season.
You know it has been a strange run when the Wizards boast an 11-6 record against teams above .500, but it's a bigger story when they actually beat losing teams. After a 121-103 victory over the New York Knicks on Wednesday, the Wizards improved to 11-10 against the weaklings of the NBA. Since the loss in Atlanta last week, they have won two straight against the dribbling proletariat. They might be starting to resist doing everything the hard way. Start planning the parade.
They're not injured anymore. All of their key players are available and starting to find rhythm. Wall looks closer to his all-star self. In pulling down 21 rebounds in his past two games, power forward Markieff Morris appears to be more active and moving without restriction. For the first time this season, the Wizards aren't waiting for one of their top players to get comfortable.
"I think just everybody is getting healthy," Wall said. "Me, Keef getting healthy. Otto [Porter Jr.] getting back healthy. Brad [Beal] has been playing great for us. He's been MVP so far this season. I think everybody else is just falling in line, just moving the ball. When we move the ball like we did [against the Knicks], we give ourselves easy shots and easy passing lanes, and nobody really cares who is going to score. Just look at the scoreboard any day, and if we have many more assists than turnovers, we end up winning the game."
We often judge the Wizards by how well they're playing defense. But perhaps ball movement on offense is a greater indicator of whether they're clicking. With this roster, they're always going to be an up-and-down defensive team, but this season, their defense has been better. Their offense — particularly when it comes to sharing the ball and spreading the burden to all of their skilled scorers — hasn't flowed as well. It has been fine, but at times last season it was special.
The Wizards are eighth in the NBA in defensive rating. They're No. 10 in offensive rating. It's as balanced as they have ever been, but some of the stats may be off because Wall has missed 11 games. When he's out, the Wizards have been less efficient on offense and scrappier on defense. When he plays, their offense thrives, but their defense slips. If the Wizards manage to stay healthy and remain a top-10 offensive and defensive team the rest of the season, it's likely that they will win at a much higher rate. Last season, they finished seventh in offensive rating and 20th on defense.
The Wizards have used their recent hot streak to improve to 22-16, which is a 47-win pace, just below last season's total. They seem more like a 45-win team right now, but let's see if they can sustain success. Let's see if they can come up with a creative move at the trade deadline to get a little better.
A year ago, the Wizards played their best basketball in January, finishing 12-4 during the month. If you can trust them now against bad or middling opponents, there's an opportunity to do the same this January. After visiting Memphis on Friday, the Wizards will play five straight games at home. Then comes a five-game road trip.
The next six games will be a good measure of the Wizards' stability. They play just one team with a winning record, Milwaukee, which comes to Capital One Arena twice. But they face some losing teams that are known for playing hard. That includes Memphis and two teams that have embarrassed Washington this season — Brooklyn and Utah, which beat the Wizards by 47 points last month.
"It's not going to get easier," Brooks said. "We are going to have to play well. I like what we are doing. We are defending and moving the ball."
Brooks left out one crucial thing: Respecting the game. When the Wizards play like they aren't above competing, when they're focused and treat every game like an important one, they're a solid team. They tend to think that you can be a great team only by winning big games. That's a partial truth. They need to win their fair share of big ones, but the Friday nights in Memphis and the sleepy Wednesday home games against Utah are the ones that put teams in better position to do something special.
Are the Wizards ready to be dependable?
It's a question they can best answer by keeping their mouths shut and doing their jobs.
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