Washington Wizards guard Mitch Richmond might have been more devastated by Thursday night's loss to the Houston Rockets than any other member of the team. He sat at his locker stall after the game staring forward with a glazed look.

Though he led Washington with 18 points, he agonized over his four turnovers, most of which were made when he seemed uncertain whether he should drive or shoot or pass. Houston, which Washington plays today at MCI Center, scored 22 points off the Wizards' 14 turnovers.

Richmond also pondered his defense, which of late had been stellar but against Houston was not up to his standards. Unable at times to match up with quick backup guard Cuttino Mobley, Richmond committed five fouls, mostly by grabbing Mobley as Mobley drove past him. Mobley finished with 20 points and was 11 for 12 from the free throw line.

Richmond helped hold starting guard Shandon Anderson to just four points, but with Mobley being a tougher matchup for Richmond, Houston Coach Rudy Tomjanovich played Mobley 33 minutes to Anderson's 20.

"I've just got to concentrate on making the right decisions, like when to drive and when to shoot," Richmond said. "It seems to kind of get us going when I [play good defense] because that means my teammates are playing good defense too. Our concept really revolves around team defense."

Richmond's performance Thursday night was as much of a letdown for the team as it was for him. The Wizards' three-game winning streak ended, and they fell into a tie for last place in the Atlantic Division with the New Jersey Nets at a time when their confidence was soaring and the concept of making the playoffs actually had re-entered their thoughts.

If recent trends continue, though, Richmond is due for a big game today. The past three times Richmond has scored in the teens, he has responded with at least 22 points, twice going over 30. Washington has won all three of those games.

Richmond's ability to come back and his overall resurgence recently is partially because of pride. For the first time in his 11-year career, he came off the bench for six games while he got his game and body together early in the season.

A strained right hamstring and tendinitis in his left knee hampered Richmond early this season. When they healed, his legs were in worse condition than they were at the beginning of training camp, which he entered about 10 pounds lighter than he did last season. It took weeks for him to get into the proper shape and only in the past few weeks has he played like the six-time all-star Washington signed to a four-year, $40 million contract this summer.

"My legs feel a lot better, the hamstring, the knee," Richmond said. "That's the main difference."

Before he got going, he had a streak of single-digit scoring games and was unable to play the defense that over his career made him one of the NBA's toughest players to face on both ends of the court. The slow start has him averaging 16.5 points, a team high, but well below his career mark of 23.

Coach Gar Heard said because he knew Richmond as one of the league's better players, he figured Richmond would overcome the injuries and would get his game together quickly. In hindsight, Heard said he regrets allowing Richmond to play while he was hurt.

"If I had to do it over again," Heard said, "I would have talked him into sitting out the first five games. He's a competitor and he wanted to help the team."

However, the way Richmond has played recently has made up for any wrong decisions and has been a major reason the Wizards have played up to their potential for the most part, Heard said.

"He's healthy now and that is the biggest difference," Heard said. ". . . The way he was playing [early in the season], he was hurting himself and the team, and that's not the way I pictured Mitch Richmond. But he had the chance to work himself back and in the long run it helped. Not only is he better, but he was willing to come off the bench, so hopefully the other guys saw that and if they're in a similar situation, maybe they'll be willing to do that."