- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

NBA commissioner David Stern liked what he saw that night in early November.

“It was easily one of the most impressive comebacks that I’ve ever seen,” Stern said one day after watching the Washington Wizards rally from a 16-point deficit to beat the Memphis Grizzlies by 12 on the road last month in their season opener. “It was an amazing show of fortitude.”

Anyone who watched the Wizards that night — and anyone who suffered through their many failings in recent years — knew Stern really was on to something.

Starters Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Brendan Haywood all were suspended for that game, leaving the Wizards with just eight players on the active roster. Nonetheless, newcomer Antawn Jamison and role players such as Juan Dixon (season-high 28 points) and Michael Ruffin (career-high seven blocks) kick-started the Wizards’ surprising season against a playoff team that won 50 games a year ago.

It was just one game, but that victory and those that followed spoke volumes: These young Wizards appeared to be growing up and — finally — doing the things that winning basketball teams do.

Nearly two months later, the Wizards are beating the teams they are supposed to beat. They are rallying from deficits — just as they did in the season opener — to win. They are finding ways to win close games.

The result is that the Wizards are off to their best start (14-10) in 20 seasons and have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.

Five times this season the Wizards have overcome double-digit deficits to win. It helps that they have their most potent offense in years, led by Jamison, Arenas and Hughes. There is a confidence in the locker room that has not been there in a long time.

“We feel like we’re in every game,” Hughes said at the end of the team’s western trip Tuesday, a four-game jaunt that saw them finish 2-2. “There is no question that if we fall behind 10-15 points, we feel like we can get those back. We don’t want to be behind, but when we are we feel like there is enough time on the clock for us to get back in it.”

The Wizards’ performance on the trip not only signals the first time they have played .500 basketball on a Western Conference trip since March 2002, it featured some pretty heady victories that Wizards teams of the past probably would have failed to secure.

Most notable was their 120-116 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at the start of the trip to end an 11-game road losing streak to that team. Recognizing the importance of the game — and realizing that the Lakers are not the same without Shaquille O’Neal — the Wizards shot a season-high 51.1 percent from the floor while committing a season-low six turnovers.

The win pushed the Wizards’ record in overtime games to 3-1, another sign the corner has been turned.

Nonetheless, coach Eddie Jordan remains guarded about the team’s early success.

“Our guys are growing,” Jordan said. “They are getting to know each other, and they have a lot of pride. But in truth we are still young and fragile, and it is early in the season. I’d like to say that those wins put us over the top and that we’re right there. But we’re not.”

Observers cite three reasons why the team is playing better: President of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld’s decision to trade for Jamison, Jordan’s coaching and the maturation of the players.

“Look at the success that Mr. Grunfeld has had in the places he’s worked before here,” Jamison said of playoff teams Grunfeld assembled in New York and Milwaukee. “Guys know that he is going to work very hard to put together a winner.”

Said Grunfeld, himself a former NBA player: “Having tasted some success, I think the players like it. They know that if you keep fighting and clawing and you keep competing, you have a chance to stay in most games.”

Jordan said the team’s greater maturity from last season is evident in the way players communicate among themselves in all phases of the game — “practices, shootarounds, timeouts, name it.”

“When we go into timeouts the dialogue is much different now,” Jordan added. “When we game-plan, they are more attentive and they are into it; the time on the floor is serious. They have taken the whole thing very professionally ever since training camp. But there are lightning bolts out there that we’ve got to be strong enough to get through.”

One of those lightning bolts came Dec.8, when Kwame Brown and Jordan got into it on the bench after Brown blew a defensive assignment and basically ignored Jordan when he got on him about it. The two men then discussed the incident behind closed doors.

“I know what he’s like. He’s not like other coaches I’ve had,” said Brown, who loathes Jordan’s predecessor, Doug Collins. “We said what we said, and now we’ve moved on.”

Now the Wizards again are moving into a favorable stretch of the schedule. After Sunday’s game at Minnesota, seven of their next eight will be at MCI Center.

Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber, traded by the Wizards in 1998, said he still follows the team and believes, for the first time in years, the Wizards are doing things right both on the court and in the front office.

“Now they have ballers,” said Webber, referring to Arenas, Hughes and Jamison, guys who used to play about 80 miles south of Sacramento in Golden State. “[Jordan] is clearly the leader, and from what I understand they love playing for him. He shows you what a good coach can do, because those three dudes were down the road from here and they never played like that.”

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