The Washington Wizards' recent run of success came to a screeching halt tonight as they regressed into some of their old bad habits against a hungry team that outworked them at every crucial juncture.
The Houston Rockets, fielding a roster short on household names because of injuries to stars Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley, ended Washington's three-game winning streak with a 105-89 victory before 14,841 at Compaq Center.
"That wasn't a good defensive effort," Wizards Coach Gar Heard said. "I thought we got caught up in a scoring mentality early in the game. We scored so easily we thought we were going to try to outscore them. . . . You expect some kind of letdown and maybe we though this game would be a lot easier than what it was.
"We can't afford to take anybody lightly, and I think that's what happened early on."
The Wizards had hoped to post their first four-game winning streak since winning the final four games of the 1997-98 season. Instead, they lost their sixth straight in Houston dating from 1993.
Washington (9-18) was outrebounded and outhustled in the decisive fourth quarter. The Wizards trailed 80-76 after a goaltending call on Aaron Williams's layup attempt, but a three-pointer by former University of Maryland guard Steve Francis started Houston's late barrage. Washington was outscored 29-17 in the final period.
"That was a great team effort," said Francis, who had 16 points and a game-high 11 assists. "In the fourth quarter we really made things happen and that was good because we've really been struggling in the fourth quarter."
Houston scored just 11 points in the fourth quarters in two of the previous three games, both losses. Over the past four games, the Rockets had averaged 16.5 points and shot 30 percent in the fourth. They shot 41 percent in the final period tonight.
The Wizards abandoned the interior offensive game and sharp ball movement that put them on the fast track early in the game. Instead, they rushed perimeter shots that left them vulnerable in transition defense time and time again.
Houston outscored Washington 18-4 on the fast break. The Rockets also made a season-high 8 of 16 three pointers, four by forward Matt Bullard (16 points).
The Wizards' lack of offensive aggression was punctuated by the fact that they went to the free throw line 11 times in the first quarter and 15 times the rest of the game. Washington was 15 of 26 from the line. Houston made 27 of 37.
"We had a lot of mismatches and we didn't take advantage of them," Heard said. "A lot of times we had little guys on us. We have to not settle for jump shots. But you have to give them credit. They came out and played hard and made us play their type of game."
The Rockets, who had lost six of their previous seven games, also are 9-18. The teams meet again Sunday afternoon at MCI Center.
Six Rockets scored in double figures, led by backup shooting guard Cuttino Mobley and backup center Kelvin Cato with 20 points each.
Guard Mitch Richmond led the Wizards with 18 points. Forward Juwan Howard had 16 points and backup center Ike Austin finished with 10. Austin had a dominant second quarter, scoring eight consecutive points to bring the Wizards to 34-33, but Heard played the former starter just five minutes in the second half.
Center Jahidi White had his least effective game since becoming a starter, scoring six points and grabbing eight rebounds in 18 minutes.
Houston, which led after every quarter, went into the fourth period ahead 76-72. The Rockets overcame an early third-quarter burst by the Wizards, who seemed poised to make a move. However, Houston never backed off at either end and eventually put together a solid stretch of its own after Richmond's jump shot gave Washington a 62-59 lead.
Houston used a 7-0 run to go up 65-62 after Bullard's third three-pointer. The counter was typical as the Rockets thwarted every Washington spurt with an impressive run of their own.
"We didn't get into any type of offensive flow," Richmond said. "I don't know why that was but we couldn't get anything going."
In the first quarter Francis and Howard had a brief, but heated exchange after Francis took exception to a flagrant foul by Howard, who corralled the rookie on a breakaway layup attempt and restrained him from crashing into the base of the basket.
Francis wrestled away from Howard, then turned his back and walked away when Howard tried to approach him to make peace.
CAPTION: Center Jahidi White (6 points, 8 rebounds in 18 minutes) has least effective game since becoming a starter.