WASHINGTON - Ernie Grunfeld traces the success of the Washington Wizards this season back to opening night in Memphis. Against a team that was the biggest surprise of the NBA a year ago, the Wizards played without three starters, fell behind by 18 points - and won.
"It showed that we were going to compete," Grunfeld, in his second season as the team's president of basketball operations, said recently.
The first of a league-high 10 victories coming back from double-digit deficits was more than the impetus for the franchise's best record at the All-Star break in 25 years. Although a 30-22 record could have been better if not for the current three-game losing streak, it also reflects the team's resilience.
The Wizards showed a lot by winning that first game without guards Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes, as well as center Brendan Haywood, but they have demonstrated even more by going 8-9 since Hughes was sidelined a month ago with a broken right thumb.
The injury to Hughes was the most serious the Wizards suffered this season, yet far from the only significant time missed by a player who figured into coach Eddie Jordan's rotation. Only Antawn Jamison has played in every game. The Wizards have lost 181 man-games to injuries, illnesses and suspensions.
"The second half, we are going to get our players back and we will get on a roll," Arenas, who along with Jamison was selected to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, said after the team's most recent loss, last week in Houston. "When we get our players back, we are going to be a scary team."
The possible return of Hughes and fourth-year forward Kwame Brown from an ankle injury for the restart of the season tonight against the same Grizzlies at MCI Center will allow the Wizards to get back to nearly full strength for the first time this season. Key reserve and former Maryland guard Juan Dixon is out with a sprained ankle.
Jordan, whose own performance in his second season with the Wizards has made him a candidate for the NBA's Coach of the Year, is a little more cautious than some of his players. "We have a heck of a ride in front of us," Jordan said.
It is a ride that is expected to carry the Wizards to their first playoff appearance in eight years and, given their position as the fourth-best team in the East to date, possibly to the franchise's first playoff series victory since the 1981-82 season.
Though the immediate schedule is in their favor, with four of the first five games at home, this is uncharted territory for many of the Wizards. Of the starters, only Hughes and Jamison have limited experience on a playoff contender.
"I think you can say there's more pressure to win in the second half; every game really becomes big because you don't have a chance to make it up," said Hughes, 26, a seven-year veteran whose previous experience similar to this came as a rookie on the Philadelphia 76ers in 1998-99.
Said Jamison, 28, who was the sixth man on the Dallas Mavericks last season after playing five years with the Golden State Warriors, "This is when you're going to see teams really start to play their best basketball."
Aside from the return of Hughes, who was having an All-Star season before getting injured, the key ingredient for Washington's sustained success is the continued emergence of 23-year-old Arenas as one of the league's top offensive players.
Arenas carried the Wizards for long stretches without Hughes, going on binges that resulted in scoring 30 points or more eight times in a 12-game stretch, including a career-high 43 against the Indiana Pacers on Feb. 7. More than Jamison, Arenas has become the player opposing teams try to stop.
"He's running the offense, he's converting breaks, he's defending better," Jordan said of Arenas, who was hurt much of last year after signing a six-year, $65 million contact as a free agent from Golden State. "His demeanor and behavior is so much better. He's communicating the right way to be the leader."
Arenas is more than willing to share the shots, and the credit, with Jamison and Hughes.
"When you have three scorers who can take over a game at any time, that's what happens," said Arenas, alluding to a recent scoring burst by Jamison that enabled the Wizards to beat the San Antonio Spurs. "At any moment, one of us is capable of dominating a period."
The Wizards are realists, knowing that their defense, ranked near the bottom of the league all season, needs to improve substantially for the winning to continue, particularly in the playoffs. The presence of Hughes, who leads the NBA in steals per game, is only part of the equation.
Washington also has to find help inside. Jordan will need strength in numbers on the interior, with Haywood not ready to assert himself consistently, and Brown, the former No. 1 pick, not able to stay healthy for long this season. Etan Thomas and Michael Ruffin play with heart, though not much finesse.
In truth, the Wizards will go only as far as their so-called "Big Three" will take them.
Asked recently if he planned to make any trades to bolster the roster, Grunfeld said: "In this business, you never say never. I believe in continuity. I believe in consistency. And the way I look at it, we're going to add two players after the All-Star break without having to give up anybody."
Do the Wizards suddenly have to change their early-season goals of just making the playoffs?
"We want to win every game we play - I don't see any goal higher than that," Jordan said. "You can't look at the destination and forget about the journey. The journey is a day-to-day grind of improving, of getting better. It's a challenge each day."