The Washington Wizards went to a "funeral" and left uplifted.
The Wizards showed some teeth and some swagger as they predicted a victory against the Boston Celtics by wearing black before the game Jan. 24. Not some players -- all the players. They were all mad over a confrontation with Boston two weeks earlier that left guard John Wall fined.
Washington wanted retribution on its home court. The Wizards made it personal, and guard Bradley Beal led the intense 123-108 victory with 31 points. With a 14th straight win at the Verizon Center, the Eastern Conference's best team at 23-12 since an awful 2-8 start is now showing it can compete. Aside Golden State and Cleveland, Washington is now equal to anyone leaguewide.
These are all the good things that have been missing since the 1970s, when the Wizards advanced to the NBA Finals three times and won it all in 1978. Since then, Washington has been undermined by lethargy as well as marginal rosters. When the Wizards assembled some talent in 2004-08 with Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, they managed four straight playoffs. Yet, that team was undermined by destructive personalities that eventually saw the roster disbanded and Arenas in jail.
But this crew gets it. Maybe Beal and Wall aren't best friends, but they work well together. Maybe the bench isn't the most talented, but Kelly Oubre is emerging as a solid 10-plus points per game. And perhaps head coach Scott Brooks is still implementing his system, but he has players working hard defensively, and that wins games.
Indeed, Washington (25-20) is only one game behind Atlanta in the Southeast Division. The season has barely crossed midseason and hasn't even reached the All-Star Game yet, but the Wizards are making a move upward for once.
And it's all about chemistry and desire.
"It's always work," Brooks said. "It's always a work in progress from every meeting I have with all of our guys over the summer. I told them how important it is to build team chemistry, but it has to come, has to be authentic. I've seen it all year that it's growing. I think it's going to continue to get better."
And it's about Beal emerging as the team leader and leading scorer. Those 31 points against the Celtics were angry points, but they showed what he's capable of doing in the postseason when the intensity raises.
Finally, after many years of a locker room that just didn't care enough, the Wizards are looking like real playoff contenders. And it comes from playing together.
"Basically just figuring out our identity," said forward Markieff Morris. "We figured out who we are as a team. Every game we stay with that same intensity, that same defensive intensity, and we are getting wins."