Dwight Howard was singing to himself as he left the showers after Monday night’s game. The Washington Wizards had just polished off the Orlando Magic, 117-109, securing back-to-back wins for the first time this season.
The smell of that dismal 1-7 start to the season was nowhere to be found.
“I’m just happy to be playing again and I know we’re gonna be a lot better than we started the season,” Howard said. “I got a little motto going. It’s called, ‘Nobody’s gonna remember November.’”
Later, coach Scott Brooks said he had only one quibble with that mantra.
“That’s interesting, but we still got some games in November. I want to make sure that we remember that,” Brooks quipped.
But the sentiment behind Howard’s point was understood. “It’s early in the season, and by the time the season ends, nobody’s going to remember how we started,” Howard said. “They’re going to be happy with how we finished.”
The Wizards have a good opportunity to make it three straight wins, and four wins out of their last six, when they host the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night. Is this homestand the start of a turnaround in Chinatown? It can be, thanks to these recent improvements.
At Tuesday’s practice, Otto Porter Jr. was just the latest Wizard to emphasize the team’s improvement on the defensive end of the floor.
“We’ve been picking up defense in the fourth quarter,” he said. “Playing as a unit, all five guys on a string. That’s something we’ve been preaching in practice a lot and going back to the drawing board.”
Washington held Orlando to 109 points and Miami to 110 the game before that — a shade under the NBA team scoring average of 110.7 points through Monday, but a vast improvement after the Wizards allowed 123.9 points per game during their 1-7 start.
“We simplified things the last three or four games now, and I think it’s been paying off,” Brooks said. “It all starts with our effort and the physicality and the intensity on the basketball. I think that has improved, and it has to.”
But Brooks emphasized that the team needs to do a better job guarding the perimeter. The Wizards give up the highest 3-point shooting percentage to opponents in the league (.398).
Communication and selflessness
It wasn’t long ago that the Wizards appeared to have a long season of in-fighting ahead of them. After their loss to Sacramento in Game 5 of 82, players made it clear the team was not playing unified.
“Sometimes we have our own agendas on the floor, whether it’s complaining about shots, complaining about playing time, complaining about whatever it may be,” Bradley Beal said then. “We’re worried about the wrong (expletive), and that’s not where our focus needs to be and it’s just going to continue to hurt us.”
Nobody seems to be talking about that anymore, once the team remembered how to win games. Porter said the communication has improved in recent weeks.
“It’s just playing with each other. We’re all on the same string,” he said. “We’re gonna be beat on defense a little bit, but it’s (about) the reaction that we have to have, having each other’s backs.”
After having a great all-around game Monday, Jeff Green chalked up his defensive performance in particular to his teammates’ help, a good sign only if they can keep it up.
“We communicated,” he said. “We were in the right spots to get spots toward the end of the game, and we helped each other.”
It’s no accident that the Wizards started 1-6 without Howard and have gone 3-3 since he made his team debut.
The Wizards are 29th in the NBA in rebounding, but in each of their two most recent wins they finally beat their opponents in rebound margin. It helps to have Howard averaging 9.3 rebounds per game so far. And his presence solidifies a rotation that otherwise had to let Ian Mahinmi start at center and average 14 minutes a game.
Besides that, Howard has had a positive influence in the locker room thus far, Brooks said Tuesday. Though the center was tagged with the reputation of “bad teammate” from previous dysfunction in Orlando, Los Angeles and Houston, Brooks credited Howard’s “great spirit.”
“He comes to work every day with a smile. He comes to work every day with his intensity, and he does it in his own way,” Brooks said. “I like what he’s about. He’s been perfect for us and he’s played well, and he’s only gonna get better as his game conditioning improves.”
Howard’s style often includes “corny” jokes (remember his introductory press conference with Washington) and catchphrases like the one he proudly revealed Monday.
“I said it earlier and it kind of stuck,” Howard said. “Nobody’s gonna remember November. It’s pretty good.”