By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006
The night began with Washington Wizards fans engaging in the familiar custom of booing Juwan Howard, but by the third quarter, many of those same fans were booing their own team.
A Rockets squad that had lost five straight games and was playing without star center Yao Ming entered MCI Center and played with more energy, passion and precision than a Washington team that was supposed to use the arrival of the new year as a springboard to something better.
Instead, the Wizards fell behind in the opening minutes, trailed by 11 at halftime and allowed the NBA's lowest-scoring team to build a 26-point second-half lead en route to a 123-111 loss in front of 14,883 last night. The Wizards are 7-7 at home and 12-17 overall.
The ultimate insult came with 6 minutes 8 seconds remaining in the third quarter when Howard fed former Georgetown star Dikembe Mutombo for an easy alley-oop dunk that put Houston ahead by 76-52.
As Mutombo and his aching knees strolled back to the Houston bench, the Wizards were on the receiving end of the loudest chorus of boos not directed at a former Washington athlete (Howard, Kwame Brown, ex-Capital Jaromir Jagr) heard at MCI Center this winter.
The Wizards showed heart with a late charge that cut the Houston lead to eight points, but not even a season-high 41 fourth-quarter points could make a difference on a night when the Rockets shot 55.1 percent.
Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas did what he could, scoring 44 points on 13-of-25 shooting. He gave the Wizards hope when he curled off a screen and made his fifth three-pointer of the night, cutting Houston's lead to 109-101 with 3:32 remaining, but Houston's Tracy McGrady (38 points) came up with an offensive rebound and made a short jump shot to push Houston back ahead by 11.
"We have to come out with energy, and we're not doing that right now," said Arenas, who has scored 40 or more points in a Washington loss three times this season. "We're doing it in spurts, in the last five minutes when we're down by 11 but we need to be doing that at the beginning of the game and it wouldn't have to be that way."
Howard, who played for the Wizards from 1994 to 2001 and obviously remains an object of local derision, finished with a season-high 24 points to go with seven rebounds.
Howard scored 12 of his points during the second quarter, when he made 6 of 7 shots.
Rafer Alston also achieved a season high with 17 points, 12 of them during the third quarter. Alston scored Houston's first 10 points of the second half and hit one of several clutch shots for the Rockets, making a three-pointer that put his team ahead by 11 with 2:33 remaining.
It was the third straight loss for the Wizards, who appeared headed in the right direction after beating the Los Angeles Lakers last Monday. That victory was the third in a row for the Wizards, but things have fallen apart since.
Just as the Miami Heat poured in a season-high 128 points in a win at MCI Center on Friday night, Houston had no problems getting whatever it wanted.
In his briefest postgame comments this season, Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan summed things up perfectly: "We are defensively challenged. We have got to continue to work at it."
The Rockets were last in points scored per game (87.6) and shooting percentage (41.5 percent) in the NBA, but have been a good defensive team all season. Arenas's 44 points were by far the most scored against them and his performance earned the respect of Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy.
"I know Gilbert Arenas gets credit but he really is Allen Iverson in a different package as far as body size and strength," Van Gundy said. "He's competitive. He's quick. He attacks. He makes threes. He does it all."
The praise wasn't a whole lot of consolation for Arenas, who is growing tired of putting up large numbers in losing efforts.
"We have to come out and play like we're underdogs," said Arenas, who scored a career-high 47 points in Friday's loss to Miami.
"I mean, we're in [ninth place in the Eastern Conference]. It's not like we're sitting there like Detroit at 25-4. We need to be coming out here playing hard, and I'm not sure why that's not happening."