Wizards Make Late Run, but Fall Short

yao ming - etan thomas - washington wizards
Yao Ming, who is rejected on this play by the Wizards' Etan Thomas, has 25 points and 14 rebounds Wednesday as the Rockets prove an inhospitable guest. (Tim Johnson - AP)
By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006

HOUSTON, Nov. 22 -- Washington Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan has awarded Caron Butler the nickname "tough juice" and for a time Wednesday night, it appeared that a little bit of that toughness would be enough to get the Wizards their first road win of the season.

With 9 minutes 5 seconds remaining at Houston's Toyota Center, the Rockets appeared to be cruising to a comfortable win when Butler, who is generously listed at 6 feet 7, drove the baseline and executed a vicious one-handed dunk over the 7-6 Yao Ming.

The dunk drew oohs and ahhs from the crowd and threw a charge into the Wizards, who went on a 13-2 run that reduced Houston's lead to one point with 5:43 to play. However, just as the momentum appeared to be going their way, the Wizards went scoreless on seven straight possessions and the game slipped out of their grasp when Rafer Alston made a three-pointer with six seconds remaining to help the Rockets emerge with an 86-82 win.

The Wizards (4-7) shot 33.3 percent from the field and were outrebounded 57-44 but had a chance to win because they played solid defense -- Houston shot 41.3 percent and committed 22 turnovers -- while holding the Rockets scoreless on six straight fourth quarter possessions as they clawed their way back into the game.

After the game, players expressed frustration over not finishing but also saw the Butler-induced run as a sign that things will turn around.

"All we need is a shot here or a call there and we're winning these games," said Butler, who finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds in 38 minutes. "Tonight, we played good defense and we overcome a lot of adversity. We can grow on this."

Gilbert Arenas led the Wizards with 26 points on 8-of-26 shooting and nearly put his team over the top with a 12-point fourth quarter. Arenas was involved in several key plays down the stretch, including a questionable foul call on him that awarded Luther Head three free throws with 2:33 remaining.

Head made all three free throws, giving the Rockets a 75-71 lead, and then followed an Arenas miss by hitting a wide open three-pointer from the corner with 1:59 to go.

"I didn't foul him," Arenas said. "I blocked it. And then I go down to the other end, I get fouled and they don't call it. That's a five-point swing but we kept battling."

Arenas answered Head's three-pointer with one of his own and after a Houston turnover, Butler drew a foul after grabbing an offensive rebound and converted a pair of free throws. Yao drew a foul and made two free throws, pushing the Houston lead to four but Arenas made three out of four free throw attempts on Washington's next two possessions and the Wizards trailed 80-79 with 30 seconds to play.

That's when Tracy McGrady drove left, sucked in the Washington defense and passed out to Alston, who made the game-deciding three-pointer with six seconds remaining.

The Wizards had one final chance after Arenas banked in a three-pointer with 3.8 seconds left, but after Head missed the second of two free throws, the ball took a funny bounce off the rim, glanced off the hands of Jarvis Hayes and wound up back in the hands of Head, who was fouled and iced the game with two free throws.

The six straight road losses are the most to open a season for the franchise since the 1986-87 Bullets dropped their first seven away games and the Wizards continued their struggles in Houston, where they haven't won since 2001.

The Rockets came into the game with the best scoring defense in the league (91.3 points allowed per game) and showed why by pestering the Wizards into taking difficult shots most of the night.

The Wizards shot 26.1 percent (6 of 23) in the first quarter and quickly dug a 23-15 hole. Things didn't get better after that as the Houston lead swelled to 15 early in the third quarter.

The 28 first-half points were two fewer than the Wizards scored in the first quarter of Tuesday's loss in Dallas and established a new season low for a half.

"As funny as it sounds, and I know this sounds funny coming from us, but if we can get our offense to catch up with our defense, we're going to be fine," said guard Antonio Daniels. "Tonight, our defense kept us in the game and we're doing the things we want to do. Now, it's just a matter of his making some shots we are capable of making in these close games."

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