WASHINGTON -- "All this talk about they're the worst team in the league. Might be the hardest playing team in the league." - Jamal Murray after the Wizards' win over the Nuggets on Saturday.
"All their players played at a level much higher than we did. They were locked in, played hard, determined, focused, aggressive, and we were the complete opposite." - Nuggets coach Mike Malone
"They kicked our ass today... Just from the start of the game. You guys saw it out there. We just didn’t match their intensity." - Jaylen Brown after the Wizards' win over the Celtics on Monday.
It's one thing for the Wizards to say they want to be a hard-working, blue collar team, as they did for much of the summer, training camp and the preseason. It's another thing entirely when opponents say it, in these cases unprompted by a specific question.
The Wizards wanted to forge an identity this season as a scrappy, gritty, hard-nosed team that gives the type of consistent effort that can catch good teams by surprise. It took a few months, but that is exactly what they have become.
They have pulled off three major upsets all within a span of eight days. Last week, they took out the 26-10 Miami Heat, currently the third-best team in the East. On Saturday, they stunned the Denver Nuggets who at 25-11 are No. 2 in the West. And on Monday, they shocked the 25-9 Boston Celtics, the second-ranked team in the Eastern Conference.
All of a sudden, the Wizards are a team no one can take lightly. Do so at your own risk because they are adding more and more notches to their belt.
"I think that's a compliment when a player says this team plays hard," head coach Scott Brooks said. "The last thing you want is to be on a talented team that doesn't play hard. I've been on some of those and I've coached some of those."
Heck, if you gave Brooks some truth serum, he might tell you he coached one of those teams last season. And the season before.
How many times in the last two years did all of us complain about how the Wizards were underachieving, that they were overlooking teams? The players said it themselves. So did Brooks, so did chairman Ted Leonsis.
Now the Wizards are the team that punches up, that plays with an edge and catches their opponents off guard.
"We’re just trying to play hard, try to play smarter. We’re embodying who Coach Brooks is," point guard Ish Smith said. "Coach Brooks is a fighter and that’s who he was his whole career. I think we’re doing a great job of doing that these last few games.”
Taking on Brooks' identity; that sounds familiar. In fact, it's a variation of what general manager Tommy Sheppard prescribed in the offseason. He wanted to build a culture from the ground up and with Brooks molding their early development. He played 10 years in the NBA as an undersized point guard and he did it by being tough and working twice as hard as the next guy fighting for scrap minutes and roster spots.
What the Wizards have put on the floor in recent years wasn't Scott Brooks. This team, though, is starting to show the traits.
They have Gary Payton II, a 27-year-old journeyman, scratching and clawing to find a niche in the NBA. He's a physical perimeter defender and he sets an important tone at the front line.
Young guys like Isaac Bonga, Troy Brown Jr. and Garrison Mathews have infused the team with energy on both ends. And veterans like Smith, Ian Mahinmi, Jordan McRae and Isaiah Thomas have provided poise and play-making.
Smith mentioned Brooks' philosophy but also threw out another comparison that was made in the summer which until this point hadn't really come to life.
"I thought Brooklyn had laid that [foundation] down," he said. “Brooklyn, I thought, did a great job of it last year. They’ve been doing a great job over the last two years – they haven’t had any true superstars, but now they do. They’ve just been playing hard and guys have emerged out of nowhere."
The Nets are a model for what the Wizards want to become in several ways. For one, they rose from the ashes of their fateful trade with the Celtics to become playoff contenders by finding piece after piece from relative obscurity. Smith mentioned Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie. Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert could be included as well.
Brooklyn had to overcome one of the biggest roster-building obstacles in NBA history by finding diamonds in the rough. With John Wall's supermax contract and Achilles injury, the Wizards will have to be creative themselves. So far, they are doing a solid job developing young players like Mathews, Thomas Bryant and Moe Wagner; guys who were overlooked by other teams and brought in as bargains.
But what the Nets also did that is a long-term goal for the Wizards is they build a culture that attracted free agents. They played hard and unselfish and guys like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving took notice.
If the Wizards are to reach that point, it is still a long ways away. They would need cap room, good timing and the right player to come along. And Brooklyn made the playoffs last year. The Wizards are 12-24.
But for now, they can appreciate the fact they are starting to see the benefits from the groundwork they have laid.
"I feel like we all have a great group. We all care for each other and want to see each other do well," forward Troy Brown Jr. said. "Especially because we're really young, so at this point we have a lot of guys who are trying to make a name for themselves and are trying to develop in this league. So, we all care for each other and just want to see each other succeed. You can see that from the reactions on the bench."
The way you know a culture is being established is when the same positive traits are seen even when some pieces are missing. The Wizards continue to battle an array of injuries and on Monday were without seven players. They beat Miami, Denver and Boston all without All-Star Bradley Beal.
Brooks is having to piece together rotations that include guys like Payton II, who joined the team just weeks ago on a hardship exception. Yet, recently he has been getting results.
"We've had a lot of moving parts and it seems like the common denominator is we are playing hard at all times. Sometimes we may not have a lot of scoring options out there, but I can honestly say we have a lot of effort options out there. That's a good thing to have and that's what we want to build our program on," he said.
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