- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2017

Markieff Morris wanted to add to the ambience provided by bubbling conversation and bouncing basketballs on the Washington Wizards practice court Monday. So, he picked up a white cord and slid the thin end into his cell phone. Morris, pleased, walked to the 3-point line trailed by “Culture” by Migos pouring through the courtside speakers.

Bradley Beal swished 3-pointers and sang along. John Wall bounced around with his shooting group on the other side of the floor. Marcin Gortat playfully jousted with an assistant coach.

Suddenly, Washington basketball is part of a joyous time. That 2-8 start? So a few months ago. Clouds of doom because of bad bench contracts? It’s going to be fine. Here we go again? Not now, not with the team 27-20, winners of eight of nine, 11 of 13, and a buzzer-beating tip-in away from a nine-game winning streak.

“I think guys like the feeling we’re in,” Wall said. “We’re not trying to get comfortable, trying to stay humble. Also, keep playing the right way and win. At some point in time, you’re going to lose a game. You’re going to go through ups and down. As long as we keep playing the right way, we’re fine with that.”

The Wizards have rampaged through the last two months. They fixed themselves with 10 December wins to reach .500 before the calendar flipped and hangovers kicked in. January has been even better, which is a surprise and of note.

Washington already has 11 wins this month. Tuesday provides a final victory chance when the bickering New York Knicks arrive, representing the dysfunction going on around the Wizards in the Eastern Conference.

There are physiological and mental layers to the turnaround.

Monday’s practice lasted about 45 minutes. It was light for the starters, busier for the bench players during the midday session that took place following Sunday night’s win in New Orleans. When the starters were part of practice, the beating of their bodies was minimal. As opposed to running repeated sets through a grinding midseason practice, as was the case in recent past seasons, Wizards coach Scott Brooks relied on “a lot of mental work” for the five men hauling the team through its resurgence. Wall explained the priorities:

“We kind of know what we want to do offensively,” Wall said. “Kind of just free-flowing with us now. Don’t have to go over too many plays. Just keep going over the little simple things, defense, keep getting better in those positions and keep our conditioning up. That’s basically it.”

This is a distinct change from before?

“We used to practice, it felt like, three hours after a back-to-back,” Wall said with a smile. “So, yeah, it’s a big difference.”

Predictably, Wall is for the change. All the starters should be. Washington’s top unit has played a strenuous amount of time on the floor which has only recently been curtailed because of wide margins of victory. Brooks has gone so far as to stop Bradley Beal from shooting too much.

“Brad wants to shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot, and that’s what makes him special,” Brooks said. “He’s a great shooter. I actually told him this morning, you’re good. You don’t need to keep shooting. Just enough to get your rhythm and stay fresh for the next game.”

Brooks also contends the Wizards are working within a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships concept. In essence, when the ball is spread around offensively, better defense naturally follows. Washington’s defense remains the lacking side of the ball. However, as its offense has moved into the top 10 in the league, the defense has been dragged along. The Wizards are fifth in defensive rating this month after back-to-back months ranked 17th.

“Everybody has to be involved, otherwise you’re going to have problems and you’re going to have disinterested players on the defensive end,” Brooks said. “But, when you get everybody touching the ball offensively, your defense, it’s just human nature, it spikes up.”

Burning through the last eight weeks — only the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors have more wins since Dec. 1 — has recalibrated the season. Washington is fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. It’s just two games out of second place. If they can ever put center Ian Mahinmi onto the floor, the Wizards will have a stout addition to their rotation. What they have now is enough to spur talk about homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, even with 35 games to go.

Morris unplugged his phone to stop the music after finishing his round of shooting with Beal and Otto Porter, the league’s leading 3-point shooter. He walked up the steps done for the day. A short practice, some good times and another game ahead. This is how turnarounds feel.

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