By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 22, 2008
When the Wizards drafted JaVale McGee with the 18th overall pick this summer, they never imagined that the talented but raw 7-footer would be asked to defend one of the world's best players with his team desperately in need of a win so early in the season.
Yet there McGee was last night at Verizon Center, battling Houston Rockets star Yao Ming in the closing minutes of a tight game.
McGee, who was making his second straight start, did what he could, but the Rockets went after him relentlessly, time and again feeding the ball to the 7-foot-6, 310-pound Yao.
As a result, Yao (18 points) dictated the game's tempo in Houston's 103-91 victory, while his teammates took advantage of the Washington defense whenever it sagged to stop him.
Houston closed the game on a 27-6 run and the Wizards failed to score over the game's final 4 minutes 16 seconds.
The crushing shots came courtesy of Rafer Alston, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest, each of whom made a three-pointer in the final two minutes.
"Yao's a load in the paint, man, and then they've got some really big-time shotmakers," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "We were hoping JaVale would change up his coverage and get to a front. We did that once and we got a stop, but the young fella has to learn how to get his work down early, get to a front even before he comes to your side but he didn't do that. He tried but because of his inexperience, he couldn't do that."
Antawn Jamison led the Wizards, who dropped to 1-9 for the first time since 1966-67, when the team was the Baltimore Bullets, with 27 points and 10 rebounds.
Andray Blatche added 14 points off the bench but that was no match for Houston's balanced scoring -- Yao was one of five Rockets in double figures -- and methodical attack.
McGee posted eight points, four rebounds and two blocks but also finished with five fouls and had his hands full defending Yao.
Things looked good for the Wizards with 8:43 remaining when Juan Dixon's jumper gave them an 85-76 lead, but the Rockets quickly answered with a three-point play by reserve forward Carl Landry and consecutive three-pointers by McGrady to tie the game at 85 with just more than seven minutes to play.
Another Dixon jumper gave Washington an 87-85 lead but Yao then posted up against McGee, received a pass and threw down a monstrous dunk over the rookie.
"That dunk made me remember my first year against Shaq," Yao said. "I was thinking I could block shots and let him back me down in the paint. And then the same thing happened to me."
"He's real big," said McGee, who picked up his fourth foul with 8:10 left in the third quarter. "I was just trying to play aggressive, keep him in front of me and keep him away from the rim but it was pretty hard. I was playing aggressive but he was playing a lot more aggressive than me. They kept calling fouls on me so that made me frustrated a little bit."
After Butler grabbed an offensive rebound and made a fadeaway jumper, giving Washington a 91-90 lead, McGrady drained another long jumper.
"In the fourth, we decided to show up and play," said McGrady, who scored 14 points in the fourth on 4-of-5 shooting. "Yao got aggressive. We were knocking down perimeter shots. When you're doing that, momentum transfers to the defense."
The Wizards led by nine in the third quarter, primarily because Jamison continued to establish low post position and draw fouls. Jamison made 7 of 8 free throw attempts during the quarter and also grabbed five rebounds.
The Wizards got off to a great start thanks in part to McGee, who drove around Yao and scored on the first possession of the game, then knocked the ball away from Yao when he tried to score on Houston's first possession.
The Wizards scored 12 of their first 14 points in the paint and led 29-17 going into the second quarter. They led 50-49 at the half and by nine late in the third following an alley-oop dunk by Caron Butler.
Still, the story of the game was in the fourth quarter where the Wizards were outscored 33-14 and once again were unable to close out a close game.
"It was tough," Butler said. "We had a good handle on their core guys for the majority of the game. You knew at some point in the game Tracy McGrady was going to get it going and he had some critical shots. I think Yao got the team united when he had the big dunk and the momentum just kind of shifted in their favor at that point."