WASHINGTON - Watch the Washington Wizards long enough, and you realize that this team is not just good compared to last season, not just good compared to the teams that went before them the past couple of decades, not just good compared to the NBA's weak Eastern Conference. The Wizards are good, period. No qualifiers.
The record says as much. Last night, in defeating the Philadelphia 76ers, 117-107, at MCI Center, they hit the halfway point of the season with one more victory than they had all of last season. Their 26-15 mark is more than double their total at the same time last season, and it's better than they've been at this point since the season they unsuccessfully defended their only NBA championship, in 1978-79. And their most recent four victories have come with probably their first-half MVP sitting on the bench wearing street clothes and a splint on his right thumb.
Their response to this leap from the dregs of the past 20-odd years, to this unprecedented response to a potential calamity? Big whoop.
"I hope we can do better than one more win than last year," coach Eddie Jordan said after the game. "We set the bar very high. We don't talk about it that much. In that locker room, we talk about big things."
In past years, of course, had the Wizards reacted as they previously had to an injury as serious and impacting as Larry Hughes', they'd be talking about big things. Like big tanks, big collapses, big returns to being the Same Old Wizards (or, if you go back far enough, Same Old Bullets).
"I'm so glad the guys didn't fall into the idea of 'Here we go again,' " Hughes said in the locker room.
But why didn't they?
"I was just a piece of the puzzle who brought things that can be made up for," Hughes said.
He would have sounded self-effacing - after all, he was edging toward All-Star status before his injury and was among the league leaders in scoring and steals before his injury nearly two weeks ago. The thing is, he was right.
"It's not just points," he continued. "Anybody can get a rebound, anybody can play defense, anybody can get a [defensive] stop."
That's exactly what the Wizards did last night. Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, the other two members of the so-called Big Three, scored. So did Juan Dixon, who quietly and resolutely gave up the starting job he'd had for two games after Hughes' injury and returned to his sixth-man role. Jared Jeffries, Michael Ruffin and Etan Thomas locked down on defense and the boards.
Down by five to a depleted (without Allen Iverson) yet inspired 76ers team after three quarters, the Wizards banded together and pulled away at the end.
The emphasis there, of course, is on "together." Just as the emphasis on everything the players said afterward was on "team."
That's the real reason the Wizards are doing what no NBA team in this town has done in a quarter-century. They're merely imitating a trend that's taken too long to take hold in the NBA and in every other sport, but which is on full display lately - the template created by the defending champions in both the NBA (the Pistons) and the NFL (the Patriots, trying to repeat at this very moment).
As big scorers tend to do, Jamison, Arenas and Hughes get most of the attention. But, as Jamison pointed out, "A lot of guys on this team can score" - proof why the Wizards can withstand Hughes' absence. The majority of the highlights last night and tomorrow will be reserved for Arenas, who scored 33 points, going over 30 for the fourth time in the six games Hughes has missed. But the little plays by the lesser-known players are what clinched this victory, and many of the others.
And a lot of guys can clamp down on defense, too, as they did at the end last night, after the 76ers had shot 54 percent through three quarters. They got a lot of help from the bench, from someone who was perfectly comfortable offering tips and suggestions during play and during timeouts, orchestrating what he can from his seat. That was Hughes, who is as gratified by seeing his team succeed without him as he had been by helping them win.
It's the sort of attitude that wins, that always has won, but hasn't always been tried, especially not in Washington. There are no Hall of Famers in the front office or on the court or trying to wring out another year of glory. There's a general manager in Ernie Grunfeld, who has built winners twice before coming here; and Jordan, who has paid his dues behind the scenes before getting this gig; and players who for the most part have never won like this in the NBA.
"We wanted to establish a hard-working professional environment," Grunfeld said, while fielding waves of reporters outside the locker room after the game. "You have to get the players to buy into it. It's about winning games, not about anything else. Everybody has roles, and everybody understands what their role is and what they have to do."
They've all done it with the Wizards. The results are showing. The culture has changed. Winning is becoming a habit, not a fluke or an accident.
To this team, it's real. So is its record. So is its belief that this is only the beginning.