- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Nobody seems to know exactly when the Washington Wizards began to develop an identity, whether it was at the team's Christmas party or whether the Wizards just decided privately it was time to turn things around. In the midst of a four-game winning streak, all the Wizards seem to know is that this feels a heck of a lot better than not having any idea how the team would play from game to game.

Coach Doug Collins had termed that problem "an identity crisis."

"It wasn't very long ago when we didn't know what to expect from the guys from half to half, from quarter to quarter," Collins said. "We just couldn't put anything together with very much consistency, and it was hurting us. Now it just feels different."

That's probably because the Wizards are playing their best basketball of the season, and they are doing it with consistency. A win tonight at MCI Center against 13-21 Chicago which has just one victory away from United Center this season would give the Wizards their longest winning streak since they took nine in a row in December 2001.

Although Michael Jordan knows perhaps better than anyone that four wins in a row does not mean the Wizards have saved their season yet, it could be a turning point. Jordan and Collins both see a Wizards team that is working harder than earlier in the season.

"Good habits are starting to be built in practice," said Jordan, the Eastern Conference player of the week. "Doug is doing a great job of teaching, and the veteran players are leading the young kids into good work habits. We practice hard, and that carries over right into the games. That's what Doug has been trying to get across, and now it's starting to sink in."

Jordan said that Monday's 105-100 road win over Boston might be the most important of the season because of the different elements that went into the victory.

For one, it was a win against a team that has run roughshod over the Wizards at FleetCenter in recent years.

And then there was the nature of the win, just two nights after the Wizards earned a grueling double-overtime win over Indiana, perhaps the top team in the Eastern Conference. After they scored just 39 points in the first half and trailed Boston by double figures early in the second half, the Wizards shut down the Celtics after halftime, when they scored 61 points.

In short, this was a game the Wizards would have had no chance of winning as recently as two weeks ago.

"When you do it on the road, that makes everything that much better," Jordan said. "I really see this team starting to come together, the roles starting to come into place, which goes back to us not having an identity earlier in the season. And again, that goes back to Doug. It's safe to say that guys are starting to settle into their roles now."

One player who hasn't struggled much with his role is third-leading scorer Larry Hughes. Two weeks ago, when the Wizards seemed to think their season was in jeopardy, Hughes continued to give Collins and his philosophy ringing endorsements.

"We were right on that line of being a good team and just being a team that shows up every night," Hughes said. "We had games where we played well in the first half and then just disappeared in the second half. Now we're putting 48 minutes together. When we have lapses we just try to make it up with something even better."

In truth, the Wizards' predicament is similar to a number of teams that aren't locks to make the playoffs. However, lost on no one on the team these days is the nature of the schedule, which right now is as forgiving as it has been at any time this season.

Six of the Wizards' next seven games are at MCI Center, beginning with tonight's game against the Bulls. None of the six teams which include the likes of Golden State, Denver and Toronto they will face in that span has a winning road record. In fact, they are a combined 25-77 on the road this season, which translates to a .324 winning percentage.

The Wizards, though not cocky, sound confident they can continue to be successful in the early part of the new year.

"Whenever you win games you start to believe that when you get in those situations again you are going to win games," said Jerry Stackhouse, who scored 37 points in the victory at Boston. "Basketball is such a game of confidence, and right now we're playing at a high level of confidence. Hopefully that will continue.

"But we're not allowing ourselves to get to giddy over this. We understand that we don't have a secret. We have to continue to go out and do the things that we've been doing. That starts with us being prepared to take on Chicago, play our game and come out with a win."

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