CHICAGO -- A lot of generic explanations are going to be tossed around about the Wizards, leading 2-0 against the heavily favored Chicago Bulls, if they continue to stun the NBA landscape in this first-round series. At some point, every team, from the 15-win Milwaukee Bucks to the defending champion Miami Heat, will give lip service about having good camraderie and playing for each other. Except with these Wizards, who used to treat each like they had the plague as recently as last year, it's actually true.
They now have monthly get-togethers, usually a dinner, but those only can take place if everyone -- from rookie Glen Rice who hasn't played since Dec. 14 to All-Star point guard John Wall -- attend. No cliques. No playing favorites. It's all or nothing, and while that seems like a no-brainer it hasn't happened in recent memory among the Wizards. Teammates didn't know how to be teammates. This is why president Ernie Grunfeld was intent on strengthening the roster with solid role players with strong character. Six players are on this roster who weren't last season when they won just 29 games.
"Al (Harrington) and Trevor (Ariza), they do a great job of being leaders, do a great job of trying to bring everybody together," said Wall, in his fourth season.
There was the bowling party in Toronto to welcome the new additions Drew Gooden and Andre Miller. Before Game 1 here, they went to dinner together for more bonding.
It's evident in the teamwork they've shown in overcoming a topsy-turvy season to win 44 games and grab a No. 5 seed, dealing with serious injuries to Bradley Beal and Nene and still winning their most games since 2004-05, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in six years. Now they have this two-game lead in the best-of-7 with the next two games at Verizon Center.
"It’s always good to have that connection with your teammates," said Beal, 20, in his second season. "We had small groups last year. Guys were to their own, or to the side.
"I think it helps us on and off the court. It establishes relationships off the court, getting to know guys better. We’re a family. We’re just hanging out. It helps us on the court because we know personality-wise how guys are going to be because it makes us all just click."
Though he still won't admit it, Ariza called the players-only meeting after the Wizards lost seven of their first nine games to begin the season. It worked, unlike the one with the Cleveland Cavaliers, because of the veterans that didn't allow it to become volatile. Players did have some personal issues. They worked them out. And they put Wall on the spot about his leadership and took him to task on how he addressed certain teammates, especially veterans. This is the growth that coach Randy Wittman has been looking for in his third season as coach.
"That's key to success. Your workplace has to be pretty tight-knit if you're going to be successful," Wittman said as he retreated to the visitor's coaching office at United Center after the 101-99 overtime win Tuesday. "This year the veterans have brought that in.
"We've spoken about it the last couple years about doing more bonding together but you can't force it with, 'We're going to do this at 8 o'clock. Be there.' That's why you need those guys like Al, Nene and Andre to bring it in. When they talk, they listen."