Verizon Center had shown uncommon rudeness toward the Washington Wizards all season, but at least it had the decency not to spit on them. It’s one thing for the Wizards to rarely win at home relative to the rest of the league. It’s another for the building to turn against its tenants.
The roof sprung a leak Saturday night, which embarrassed the hosts and only served to (twice) delay a demoralizing, disjointed and damp 114-107 loss to the Houston Rockets. The Wizards erased a 25-point third-quarter deficit with John Wall’s breakneck drives, Kevin Seraphin’s out-of-nowhere outburst and Dwight Howard’s momentary self-destruction. They then squandered a five-point lead as James Harden, who scored a game-high 25 points, swished jumpers on consecutive possessions late in the fourth quarter.
Rather than find solace in a stunning comeback, Coach Randy Wittman fumed at his team’s effort in falling behind. He viewed their deficit as symptomatic of the Wizards’ recent stumbles at home, which include four straight losses.
“The main point is, at home here, we just have no — I don’t know what the term — no sense of urgency of coming home and protecting home,” Wittman said. “We don’t. We just go out and play like it’s an AAU game. There’s no excuse for the way we’re playing.”
Wall scored four of his team-high 23 points and dished three of his 10 assists in the fourth quarter. Trevor Ariza also scored 23 and grabbed 14 rebounds. Seraphin did not play in the first half, then scored 18 points, snared five rebounds and flustered Howard in the second. In the first three quarters, Howard converted 10 of 15 shots. In the fourth, he missed two shots, committed an offensive foul, traveled, bricked four free throws and did not score a point.
One night after producing the lowest NBA point total of the season in Indiana, the Wizards came home and let the Rockets shoot better than 60 percent in the first half. Howard romped to 23 points in the first three quarters — not counting the buckets he scored against a 10-year-old during an impromptu one-on-one game during the first rain delay.
Rain delay? Wait, more than one rain delay? It’s been that kind of season for the Wizards (16-19). They are 7-9 at home. Their latest defeat also perpetuated another primary struggle. The Wizards are 1-14 against opponents that currently have a winning record, their lone victory coming Nov. 30 against the Atlanta Hawks.
The turning point happened not on the court, but in the team huddle during a timeout late in the third quarter. Ariza and Nene barked at each other, shouting at one another and pleading with Wittman. From that point forward, the Wizards played with more physicality in the post and pushed the ball on offense.
“We got [ticked] off at me, at each other,” Wittman said. “If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. We came back for about 17 minutes there and play as hard and with heart as we did as any point in that game. But you can’t play 17 minutes of an NBA game against a good team. That’s what we did.”
Ariza would not reveal what started the verbal spat with Nene. “Just trying to win the basketball game,” he said. “That’s what it was about.” But he agreed with Wittman that it provided a spark.
“Sometimes, you’re going to have disagreements,” Ariza said. “It’s about how you respond and how you build from there. I felt that we did a good job by coming out and playing harder for each other.
“We definitely started playing harder. I can say it was a changing moment for our team. Every day is not going to be great. You got to find ways to motivate yourself, motivate your team. Maybe that was something that helped us out.”
The result was familiar, but none of their prior losses featured trash cans and towels at half court and so many craned necks. The leak delayed the game twice, in the second quarter for 35 minutes and again at halftime for 19.
Nine seconds into the second quarter, referee Derek Richardson was running across half court and felt the strangest thing: water splashing on his head. Richardson looked up at the ceiling and saw water streaming from above. He blew his whistle. The action halted. A lot of tall men craned their necks.
And that is how the Wizards and Rockets found themselves in an NBA rain delay.
“I can’t say that I’ve been a part of a game that had delays for rain,” Ariza said. “We play indoors.”
“Terrible,” Bradley Beal said.
Players peered up at the source. Fans murmured and tried to figure out what the heck was going on. Refs stood with their arms crossed, smiling and nonplussed. Arena officials barked in walkie-talkies. Somebody placed two garbage buckets atop a pile of soggy towels at midcourt, in front of the scorer’s table. After a while, a third trash can was brought out.
Some players wrapped ice around their shins and knees. Most players shot around, surely the first in-game warmups of their career. Wall thought the game would be cancelled. Ball boys rushed around the edges of the court. There was a lot of looking up.
Howard had a better idea to pass the time. He pulled 10-year-old Sandro Dussek of McLean from the front row, gave him a ball and crouched into a defensive stance: they were playing one-on-one. Howard allowed the kid with shaggy blond hair and a Wall T-shirt to drive to the hoop, and then he roared with laughter as he swatted Dussek’s shot into the stands.
“Got my mojo going,” Howard said.
As Dussek took his seat next to his father near the Rockets bench, players assumed their positions, the trash cans and towels were put away and the game re-started with the Wizards and Rockets tied at 29.
The Wizards had only slightly better luck than Dussek against Howard. The Rockets (24-14) promptly surged ahead with a 34-17 run to end the half as the Wizards drew Wittman’s ire.
“Listen,” Wittman said. “If we come out like we do at home, nonchalant, take it for granted, no sense of urgency, shortcut everything — which is what we did the first two-and-a-half quarters — until we hold each other accountable of what’s going on on the floor and get it corrected, that starts with me. But it also starts in the locker room, having some leadership in there. We just played the game. We shortcut everything. When you do that, you get down 25.”
Rain began to pour from the hole of the roof again at halftime. Players just kept warming up. Afterward, Wittman thought back to that and found one light moment.
“Now,” Wittman said with a smirk, “I wish they would have just canceled it.”