As losses mounted, guard Garrison Mathews shared a message that resonated with Bradley Beal. Speaking to reporters, Mathews said the Wizards couldn’t afford to adopt a losing mentality.
Beal, told of the comment, wholeheartedly agreed.
“That’s a good quote by G,” Beal said in late January, when Washington sat at just 3-11. “We know we’re a lot better than what our record is showing. We can’t feed into that and think that’s the type of team we are.”
The Wizards got the message, going 9-7 in February with impressive wins over some of the league’s elite teams.
They’ve since cooled, and went into Thursday night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers on a two-game losing streak, but the Wizards have gained considerable ground, clawing their way back into playoff contention.
As the NBA’s All-Star break begins this weekend, the Wizards sit just a few games back of the play-in tournament and four back of the fourth-seed — thanks to a subpar Eastern Conference in which only four teams have a winning record.
Pin the turnaround on better defensive play, a healthier Russell Westbrook, bigger contributions from role players and stellar play from Beal. But players insist that staying strong during the earlier turbulent stretch — including the team’s coronavirus outbreak — was the catalyst.
“It was super hard, especially when you were losing as many games like we were losing,” Mathews said. “It starts kind of creeping into your mind even before the game starts. Like, ‘Man, we’re about to lose another one,” you know what I mean? Those kinds of thoughts start to creep into your head.
“But it’s just coming together as a team and having the leaders that we have.”
After defensive woes derailed the first month, the Wizards held a practice in early February to talk about players understanding their roles.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks has been on both sides of a slow start. There have been seasons in which his teams have struggled out of the gate — only to make a strong push and finish strong. Then, there’s the opposite end in which the squad can’t get going and fails to get on track.
In his first season with Washington in 2016-17, the Wizards started 2-8 before finishing the year at 49-33 and one win away from making the Eastern Conference finals. In 2018-19, the Wizards again started 2-8 in a chaotic year that involved the team making major trades at the deadline and firing general manager Ernie Grunfeld before finishing 32-50.
Brooks said this year is different.
Washington began the year without a healthy Westbrook or forward Rui Hachimura and then six players contracted the virus. Brooks understood it would take time for the Wizards to become whole again.
“We were losing games, but we weren’t losers,” Brooks said. “I’ve been on teams as a player where we didn’t have the right winning spirit. We had it. I was more worried about COVID, things like that, than losing games.”
Still, Brooks said the Wizards have to be better over the second half of the season, which begins for the team Wednesday in Memphis. Washington’s hectic slate includes eight back-to-backs and two lengthy road trips in part because of the team’s previous six postponed games because of the virus.
Before Thursday’s games, the Wizards were ranked 22nd in offense (109.5 points per 100 possessions) and 27th in defense (113.6), but Washington’s defense has made substantial strides. In February, the Wizards posted the league’s 12th-best defensive rating.
After practice Wednesday, Westbrook said Washington is moving in the right direction. The team’s West Coast swing that included victories over the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers showed him what the Wizards are capable of.
“We’re right there,” he said.
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