Every day, before practice or a game, Wes Unseld searches his players' faces and minds for potential danger signs.
Best appreciated for his motivational skills, the Washington Bullets coach knows what can happen to a team in a tailspin, wondering if it will ever end. All he has to do is look southwest toward Dallas, where the rebellious Mavericks are fighting among themselves.
The Bullets (14-29) have lost eight straight and are six games removed from the last spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Only three teams -- the Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic -- have won fewer games. And yet, Unseld has seen no signs of quitting among his young players.
They definitely passed a gut check at the Capital Centre on Friday night when, down by as many as 20 points to the first-place New York Knicks, the Bullets staged a number of rallies before tying the game with 1.7 seconds left on Michael Adams' two free throws.
Ultimately, they would lose in overtime, 125-114, but the way they had battled back was encouraging in itself.
"When you lose eight in a row, the thing that concerns you as a coach is not frustration, it's quitting," Unseld said.
"I don't mean quitting in the sense where you just lay down and say you're not going to play. It's when you can't force yourself to give that extra effort. But so far that hasn't happened to this team."
Most likely because Unseld makes certain to cut off any possible signs of trouble. In recent weeks, he has concluded practice with constant reminders that the undersized Bullets, minus their two best players -- Bernard King and John Williams -- can compete only by overachieving.
"We talk about it [the threat of quitting] all the time," he said. "You can't mask it or hide it. It's a part of what is happening to us right now. You've got to bring it out in the open."
To date, there have been no shouting matches or obvious finger-pointing by frustrated players. Veterans like Adams and team captain Harvey Grant realize they must shoulder more of the burden.
Adams, a fierce competitor, went through a similar experience in Denver last season, when the Nuggets won only 20 games.
"You have a lot of guys who quit in that situation, but also some guys determined to do their job every night," he said. "The easiest thing to do is to quit. Wes is trying to make sure that won't happen here. We could have easily quit against the Knicks, but we kept digging down and almost won it."
Unseld made a point of telling his little playmaker to take charge after Adams, consistently facing traps, attempted only five shots in the first half Friday night and was held to four points. Adams got the message and began attacking the basket on almost every possession in the second half to finish with 24 points.
"I can't worry about being double-teamed," he said. "I just have to go back to being aggressive and taking it right at 'em."
Said Grant, a forward who has been the subject of recent trade rumors: "It's not like we're not playing hard. We showed a lot of character against the Knicks. If we were quitters, when we were down 20, we could have lost by 50. But we kept coming back.
"We've tried just about everything as a team to turn this around. We've just got to come up with some new solutions."
Seeking a cure, Unseld has tried 13 different starting lineups. Last week, he elevated lightly played rookie guard LaBradford Smith to a starting role in place of David Wingate. In two games against the Knicks, Smith made three of 18 shots, but impressed Unseld with the way he attacked the basket.
Third-year forward Tom Hammonds has profited from more playing time since replacing Larry Stewart. He burned the Knicks for 47 points and 12 rebounds in their two recent contests.
A victory, of course, would do wonders for the Bullets' morale. They will have a golden opportunity today when they entertain the Magic, a team having even more problems than Washington.