The Wizards teams that advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals, with the long-since departed Trevor Ariza and then Paul Pierce, had a closeness that aided them in winning first-round series despite lacking homecourt advantage. But those teams often lacked discipline during the regular season that prevented them from holding home-court advantage.
That's also why they never won more than 46 games and couldn't get higher than No. 5 seeds. The Wizards are 20-6 at Verizon Center without the same type of veteran support behind John Wall and Bradley Beal. There was no way to anticipate these would be the results, but in a way that was the point to test their mettle as leaders. Gone are the questions about their mental toughness, observed by Ariza and Al Harrington and then co-signed by current starting center Marcin Gortat who said they were "mentally weak" after repeated losses to inferior teams on the heels of important wins.
"I'd even say even (more confidence now than) the playoff teams," Beal said after Tuesday's 117-101 destruction of the New York Knicks. "The joy that we have and the fun we're having is amazing. It's always positive in here and we want nothing but the best for one another. It's great camaraderie. We just take it all on the floor. We play for each other, don't care who scores, who gets the most points. We don't care who has a good night, who has a bad night just as long as it's a win at the end of the night."
Those moments weren't frequent last season, when the Wizards missed the playoffs for the first time in three years at 41-41. The effort to keep that bond between the 15 players in the locker room never waned but it was a challenge because of so many injuries and a locker-room wide rift with then-coach Randy Wittman. Those team-financed gatherings only if all 15 players participated still happened.
"We kept it the same last year," Wall said. "It was frustrating and more difficult when you're not winning. We still hung out. We still did the other things that we did with all the others. It was nothing that we changed."
They gathered for a team dinner before a five-game upset of the Bulls in Chicago in 2014. They went bowling in Toronto before the sweep of the Raptors in 2015. To Wittman's credit, he encouraged them all to learn "police" and "coach" one another and have in-game conversations to smooth out the rough spots. Accepting criticism from teammates was a sore spot for yeras because some players took things too personally, but those experiences appear to have made Wall and Beal better. They don't defer to veterans anymore, and Gortat, for instance, is more than happy to let them run with it even though he's the oldest at 32.
Those Wizards playoff teams may have been more talented top to bottom, but could this team be better at 28-20?
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This version of the Wizards, now with the second-longest home winning streak in franchise history at 15 games, toyed with the Knicks. In their first meeting this season Nov. 17, a 119-112 victory was actually a blowout, it looked more competitive because the Knicks scored 47 points in the fourth quarter. That lack of focus in closing out a game was typical of those earlier Wizards teams and the Wizards earlier in this season.
Since that 2-8 start, they've developed a better killer instinct that would make Ariza, Pierce and Harrington proud. The starters are playing the best basketball of their careers. All five scored in double figures for the 17th time which leads the NBA.
They came out in the third quarter following a closer-than-expected first half and stomped out the Knicks with an immediate 16-2 run. Markieff Morris, who was acquired at the trade deadline a year ago, is blossoming into the stretch four they envisioned after failed experiments with Kris Humphries and Jared Dudley that shook everyone's confidence.
Morris had 24 points and 10 rebounds Tuesday. If the Wizards are able to reach that next level -- for Wall that would be the conference finals -- it'll be because of Morris who at 6-10 can post up other bigs or face up smaller players and beat them off the dribble. The Wizards have never had that, and even Morris hasn't always brought the kind of efficiency to the table.
"I just feel like rebounding now," said Morris, who has six double-doubles with five of them coming since the start of 2017. "Something woke up in there."
The three ball from Morris has opened the floor with Beal and Otto Porter already deadly from long range.
"We started off the season without a legit four. We had Jared Dudley at the time. Then we were trying to play guys out of position, trying to put Kris Humphries at a stretch four," Wall said about the differences between last year and this group "Brad was going through injuries and stuff. Right now we have the luck of being healthy, then we got a legit four that can battle against these other fours we have problems with, like Paul Millsap, Patrick Patterson and all those guys. I think that makes a heck of a difference. Otto (Porter) is playing at a heck of level. Then me and Brad, this probably the first time we've both been healthy and playing at a high level."
The Dec. 6 loss to the Orlando Magic, who scored an uncharacteristic 124 points, marked the turning point. That ruined Wall's career-high 52 points, and it also was the last time the Wizards lost at Verizon Center. They don't panic late in close games. They erase double-digit deficts with ease and are producing better starts for a bigger cushion to make closing easier.
"When we started 2-8, that wasn't us and we knew it. We were adjusting to one another and adjusting to the system," Beal said. "We weren't playing with one another. Now we've figured it out. We figured out our defense and our offensive schemes. We're just playing with a lot of confidence right now. We're the team that we knew we could be at the beginning of the year."