HOUSTON — Trevor Ariza rolled his eyes as he helplessly walked over to the advertising board near the Washington Wizards’ bench and buried his face into a towel. Ariza had just picked up his sixth personal foul after a tussle for positioning ended up with Houston Rockets guard James Harden falling on his backside. Ariza’s exit meant that the Wizards were going to be without the man whose franchise record three-point barrage lifted his team up from an 19-point deficit and into a two-point lead with four seconds remaining.
More importantly, Washington’s best perimeter defender wasn’t going to be around to harass Harden on the final possession.
“I was [ticked] off, to be honest,” Ariza said, explaining his mood after his dead ball foul gave the Rockets a free throw and the ball.
Ariza then had to stew even more as Harden made the free throw, then jump stepped down the lane around Kevin Seraphin for the game-winning layup with 0.7 seconds remaining to send the Wizards into the all-star break with a controversial and disappointing 113-112 loss.
“We fought hard to get back in the game,” Ariza said after matching his previous career high of seven three-pointers in one quarter and while making a team-record 10 for the game en route to 32 points. “We gave ourselves a chance and at the end of the game. We did not get to decide the outcome. That’s the disappointing point.”
After John Wall made two free throws to give the Wizards a 112-110 lead, the Rockets set up to inbound at halfcourt. What happened next differed based on the vantage point, but the Wizards (25-27) felt that the Rockets benefited from another bogus call on a night in which Houston attempted 47 free throws compared to just 16 for Washington.
“To have a difference of 30 free throws. It’s hard,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “It’s too bad. These guys deserved to win that game. To have it taken from them like that, it’s sad.”
Ariza was trying to keep Harden from coming around a screen by Dwight Howard and their arms got tied up. “Those guys do a great job of getting fouls called. They know how to sell it,” Wall said. “I seen [Harden] hook Trevor and then he just fell. I had two double fouls this season. In that situation, I think you call a double foul, if you’re not sure. The ref made the call he thought he seen, and it ended up costing us the game.”
Wall had 19 points and a game-high 14 assists, with nine coming in the third quarter, when Ariza went on his rampage. The Rockets led 89-70 when Howard (24 points, 16 rebounds) made two free throws with 3 minutes 33 seconds left in the third period and the Wizards appeared to check out, with their sights clearly set on the all-star break.
But the Wizards could take some comfort in knowing that they had been able to come back from such a large deficit against Houston. When the teams met last month at Verizon Center — where the game was twice interrupted by a leaky roof — the Wizards turned a 25-point deficit into a five-point lead but didn't have enough for the finish.
On Wednesday, Ariza wanted to remind his teammates that they still had one more game to play. And just when it looked like the Wizards were getting ready for vacations on the beach, the rim started to look the ocean to Ariza.
A former Rocket who was dealt to New Orleans one year after signing a five-year, $34 million contract in 2009, Ariza made five three-pointers in the next two minutes, angrily staring down the Rockets bench after his 10th three-pointer of the game brought the Wizards within six. Wall then followed with a three-pointer to send the Wizards into the fourth quarter trailing 93-90.
“I’ve shot the ball well before,” Ariza said, holding the game ball on his hip as he talked afterward. “I was open, they was good looks and I was letting them fly.”
Washington took the lead when Beal stole a pass from Howard and found Wall, who converted a three-point play to put the Wizards ahead, 110-108. Shortly thereafter, Nene (21 points) fouled out with 1: 42 remaining while trying to post up Jeremy Lin, forcing the Wizards to finish the game without their two starting big men — Marcin Gortat had fouled out earlier. Nene declined an interview request after the game but said, “I don't have anything to say to you guys. I don't want to get fined at the all-star break.”
Seraphin, who entered the game for Gortat, fouled Harden and he made two free throws to tie the game at 110, before Wall drove around Rockets forward Chandler Parsons to draw a foul and and made two free throws with four seconds remaining.
Without a rim protector or Ariza around for the finish, Harden saw no impediment on his trip to the lane for the decisive basket. Harden went 16 for 16 from the line. Howard also had 16 free throw attempts.
The Wizards are now in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, just percentage points ahead of Brooklyn, as they enter the final 30 games of the season. They will spent part of their time away smarting over seeing two career efforts — including Bradley Beal’s 37-point point performance on Tuesday in Memphis — go to waste.
“This one probably hurt the most out of all of our losses. Just the fact that we came down from 20 down and the terrific performance from Trev to bring us back, this was a great game,” Beal said after scoring 20 points. “You can always blame refs, just because they call it or don’t call it. That doesn’t change their mind. I think we should’ve had the last two on this road trip, to be honest. This one definitely hurt. It was just the fact that we battled so hard. We were in possession of the game and we just let it slip away.”