In the Wizards' win in Denver on Wednesday, Russell Westbrook sprinted baseline and leapt above the rim to snatch an offensive rebound out of the air as center Nikola Jokic lunged for it and two other Nuggets players converged. He passed the ball to Robin Lopez, who made the basket. The Wizards later won by only two points.
On Saturday night against Minnesota, Bradley Beal followed his own missed shot and jumped in front of four Timberwolves players, including center Karl-Anthony Towns, to grab an offensive board. He threw the ball to Raul Neto, who sank a three.
That was back-to-back games in which the Wizards' star players made extra-effort plays where they out-hustled a group of players on the opposing team. Imagine the message that sends to the rest of the Wizards, especially their youngest and most impressionable players. The stars, the guys with the max contracts, are playing scrappy, blue collar basketball. The team is naturally going to follow their lead.
In fact, the way the Wizards have won their games lately, and they are now winners of seven of their last eight, has been embodied by those moments. They aren't winning pretty, by raining threes or throwing down acrobatic dunks. The Wizards are winning ugly with defense, by taking charges and wanting it more than their opponents.
Head coach Scott Brooks, a scrappy player himself in his day, remarked before the Wizards' 128-112 win over the Timberwolves how his team ranks second in the NBA in charges taken. They then took three more on Saturday night, including one by Beal on Josh Okogie in the third quarter.
Moe Wagner took a charge late in the first half on Towns and Garrison Mathews took another on Naz Reid. Mathews, an undrafted wing from Lipscomb University, leads the Wizards in offensive fouls drawn. Both are top-10 in the NBA in charges taken per game.
Wagner and Mathews are in the starting lineup to add effort and energy. The Wizards were lacking in both areas before Brooks made the change and since the team has gone 7-1.
Putting Wagner and Mathews in alongside Beal, Westbrook and Rui Hachimura has allowed the Wizards to set an energetic tone early in games. For much of this season, they have come out sluggish and had to climb their way back from big, early deficits.
It isn't just effort that Wagner and Mathews bring, however. Mathews had his best game of the season on Saturday night with 15 points and nine rebounds.
"He's fighting and falling for the ball every chance he gets. I feel like that gets the rest of us going as well," Davis Bertans said.
"He's a fighter," Brooks said. "I remember the pre-draft workout. We did this running drill and he has our record. I thought his lungs were going to explode he was running so hard. You could tell that he wanted to slow down, but he was determined. That got my attention right there."
The Wizards have come a long way since the early days of this season when Beal and Westbrook would lament the team's defensive effort-level after ugly losses. Now defensive intensity is part of their DNA. In their last nine games, the Wizards have the fourth-ranked defense in the league. In their previous 21 games this season, they ranked 29th out of 30 teams.
For Mathews to play with a chip on his shoulder, as an undrafted player, makes sense. Wagner, too, as a guy whose NBA future is not guaranteed after a so-so start to his career. Hachimura is still proving himself as well.
Beal and Westbrook, on the other hand, are stars. They don't need to do the dirty work. But they are choosing to and that is not going unnoticed.
"It's fun playing with those guys because they're great players, Brad and Russ," Mathews said. "They're some of the best competitors I've ever played with. Russell's intensity, nobody can really match that. He's a different breed, man."
Though Beal and Westbrook have always been high-effort players, perhaps collectively the Wizards are playing like they have something to prove because they do after how their season started. Though they have won seven of eight and are 10-5 in their last 15 games, they are still five games under .500 at 13-18.
The Wizards are still digging themselves out of an early season hole.
"We haven't done anything. That's what I keep telling our guys," Beal said. "We need to build off the games that we've won and keep that same energy on the defensive end."