HOUSTON – The Wizards have given away a handful of games this season, but they were bristling in the locker room Wednesday night about a game that was “taken from them” after a 113-112 loss to the Houston Rockets.
The anger was rooted in the controversial call that put James Harden in position to score three points in the final four seconds, to chop up their defense and euro-step his way done the lane for the decisive layup with seven-tenths of a second remaining. A few players gathered in a circle, arguing about whether the officials should’ve held their whistles and let play resume or called a double foul on Harden and Trevor Ariza after the two got tangled up while the Rockets prepared to throw an inbounds pass.
Instead, Ariza fouled out on a dead-ball call, giving Houston a free throw and the ball after the Wizards exerted tremendous energy to rally from a 19-point deficit to take a lead in roughly 15 minutes. One player shouted, “Man, [expletive] the NBA, sometimes.”
When cameras, microphones and recorders surrounded them, the players and Coach Randy Wittman held their tongues to avoid saying anything that could possibly get them fined. Nene — one of three Wizards starters to foul out — declined to speak altogether, rather than risk writing a check to the league after a game in which the Wizards believe they were wronged by some one-sided officiating.
Before hitting the game-winner, Harden connected on his 16th free throw of the game, matching the total of the entire Wizards team. Dwight Howard also shot 16 free throws — though some came as the result of a failed strategy to intentionally foul him — as the Rockets took 47 shots from the foul line.
“It’s the toughest way to lose,” Wizards point guard John Wall said. “Opponents shoot 30 more free throws and unless you’re having an incredible shooting night, you think you’d lose by 20. We fought hard and ended up losing by one. The bounces and calls didn’t go our way towards the end.”
Three calls in the final 3 minutes 36 seconds actually created the most ideal situation for Harden’s zig-zagging finish. Marcin Gortat fouled out while guarding Howard, Nene picked up his sixth foul on a sketchy charge call that was essentially made because he’s bigger than Jeremy Lin, and then came Ariza’s sixth foul.
With the Wizards leading 112-110, the Rockets were preparing to throw the ball into Harden for the final shot. Harden grabbed Ariza’s jersey, drawing him in and Ariza wrapped his arm around Harden’s back as the two, pranced and tugged. After leading Ariza to the Howard screen, both players actually collided with him and got knocked off balance. Already locked in arms with Ariza, Harden snapped back his head and fell down, coercing the whistle.
“The ball wasn’t thrown in, they said, which is one shot and the ball,” Wittman said. “After they saw it [on replay], they saw it was a hook and a hold by [Harden] first. But it is what it is.”
An irate Ariza stormed off the floor, unwilling to accept that he’d done anything wrong on the play.
“We were both battling and he was trying to get the ball and I was trying to stop him from getting the ball,” Ariza said. “We both made contact and it just so happened that they called a foul.”
When asked if Harden embellished a bit, Ariza smiled, shrugged and said, “That’s not for me to decide.”
Ariza laughed to himself and repeated, “That’s not for me to decide.”
The call created a bittersweet situation for Ariza, who scored a season-high 32 points while making a franchise-record 10 three-pointers, including seven in the third quarter, when Wizards cut a 19-point deficit down to just three.
“If I got a good look let it go. My teammates was looking to me, telling me to be aggressive. I was just doing everything I could to help us try to win,” Ariza said, “But to me, personal stats never really matter. To me, it’s always better to win than have personal goals or personal stats. That’s how I approach the game and that’s the way I try to play and I feel that’s the only thing that matters.”
Ariza’s hot shooting fueled the Wizards toward the finish, though Ariza wouldn’t score in the fourth period. Ariza, however, did his part to contain Harden, recording a block and a steal in the final period.
Harden scored 28 of his game-high 35 points in the first three quarters but missed his only field goal attempt of the fourth quarter with Ariza denying him the ball. But when Ariza was forced to watch the final possession, Howard set a screen on Wall to give Harden a clear path to the lane. Fearing that he would draw a foul by moving or jumping, Kevin Seraphin simply raised his arms — and Harden hopped right around him.
“We got in foul trouble and that hurt us with the bigs, with Gortat and Nene. That took away a little bit of our aggression,” Wittman said.
The Rockets certainly were on the attack for most of the game – Howard soared back door for several lob dunks and Harden was relentless driving to the hoop – while the Wizards were content shooting long jumpers; they attempted 32 three-pointers. But the free throw disparity was unsettling and the Wizards argued that didn’t get any help the times that did take the ball to the basket. The Rockets had 46 points in the paint, compared with 40 for Washington.
“Some of that you have to credit them for being aggressive and us for not being as aggressive. We wish we could of got some” calls, Bradley Beal said, “but that’s just basketball.”
Nene, Gortat and Wall were the only Wizards to attempt free throws and Wall had as many as Rockets backup Donatas Motiejunas (six). Nene also missed six free throws, which loomed large in a one-point loss. In spite of all that, the Wizards still were in position to escape Houston with their first win at Toyota Center in more than five years — until Ariza and Harden got tied up and the game unraveled.
“We wish they would just let them play at that moment, but it is what it is,” Beal said. “There was just a bunch of controversy at the end of the game that we wish we could have back.”
Ariza didn’t want to harp on the final sequence with Harden, especially since the Wizards are done with the Rockets for the season after two of the most unusual games: “It’s part of the game, it happens. I’ll get over it and just move on from it.”