I guess we should have known something was off from the beginning.
In a weird occurrence, the game was stopped 0:48 seconds into the first quarter because the Houston Rockets basket was crooked. After Dwight Howard and others attempted to straighten the rim, Toyota Center staff eventually replaced the entire goal. The game was delayed 20 minutes and after another five-minute warm-up period, play resumed.
The Rockets' play in the 104-103 loss to the Washington Wizards bore a striking resemblance to that weird episode.
How else can you explain the Rockets losing when they out-rebounded the Wizards (38-35), consistently punished them down low (50-34 points in the paint, 18-9 on second chance points), and held John Wall to 4-10 shooting and five turnovers? Letting the Wizards get to the foul line 28 times (where they converted 26 free throws) is how you explain that one.
What about MVP candidate James Harden dropping 33 points on 12-23 shooting, the Rockets being up seven with just under five minutes left in the second quarter, then subsequently falling behind by 18 points in the next eight minutes, recapturing the lead behind a lineup of Trevor Ariza (15 points, 5 rebounds), Donatas Motiejunas, Jason Terry, Corey Brewer (15 points), and Joey Dorsey (!), and finally losing the game on (you guessed it) free throws?
The Rockets went at Washington in the paint early, feeding Dwight Howard with a steady diet of pick-and-rolls and dump offs. They really challenged Marcin Gortart to guard Howard on the move. Dwight had 10 of his 13 points, on 5-7 shooting, in the first eight minutes of the first quarter.
Too bad that didn't last.
Dwight went out of the game soon after and didn't see the floor until almost five minutes were left in the half. At which Houston's volley of three point attempts failed to fall and Washington charged into the lead at the half.
Bradley Beal (33 points, 5-11 from three, 10-10 FT) was the catalyst for Washington early scoring 14 points in the first half including two daggers from three in the last 1:23 of the second quarter that set the tone for a third quarter beat down.
The Rockets couldn't hit anything. Hook shots? Denied. Three pointers? Nope. Layups? Eh, not quite. It was brick city. It didn't help that a turnover plague also hit Houston at the same time. Credit Washington's wing players for coming up with big time defense to force some steals, but the Rockets' five turnovers were more a combination of bad passes and mediocre play than anything.
It wasn't until Corey Brewer and the clean up crew came in that the intensity picked up and the tides started to turn. The beginning of the fourth quarter featured the type of scrappy play that got Houston back into the game. After a Brewer shot, Ariza grabbed a rebound, Motiejunas missed a shot, Joey Dorsey grabbed another, and though Brewer missed another shot, the bench showed that they weren't going down without a fight.
Brewer drove to the basket and fired from outside like James Harden, Dorsey (6 rebounds, 19 minutes) threw his body around on the boards and with fouls like a young Dwight, and Terry filled in the gaps. Outside of an Andre Miller layup, this group held the Wizards without a field goal for almost four straight minutes.
It looked like the Rockets might have snatched the momentum, but Beal, with a little help from Paul Pierce (21 points, 7-9 shooting, 6-6 FT), shut the door on a complete comeback. Of course, the Rockets gave them a helping hand.
First Patrick Beverley (on a pretty close call) committed the foul on a charge attempt, Harden rimmed out a layup attempt, a loose ball left Beverley, Harden, and Brewer out of position on a run out -- leading to a heartwrenching Paul Pierce three, Ariza stepped out of bounds, and that was about that.
Washington went 8-8 from the charity stripe to seal the deal. A James Harden three came too late, leaving Houston with a bundle of missed opportunities, wondering what could have been.
There is a potential identity for the bench crew that led the comeback in this game: defense and hustle. One that could continue to help this Houston team round into form. I failed to mention Josh Smith, because he failed to mention that he wanted to play in this game. Call it a lack of familiarity with his new team, call it a lack of playing time (22 minutes), but we can all expect these growing pains.
This was a hard loss to take, but there are enough good things to take from this game that optimism should be at an all-time high.