One moment, rookie Rui Hachimura had knocked down a turnaround, fadeaway jumper; the degree of difficulty was appreciated by the announced sellout crowd. On the very next play, Harden, on his way to a 59-point night, silenced those cheers. A Washington player development coach slapped the back of the empty chair belonging to Coach Scott Brooks after watching the 2017-18 MVP drill a step-back three.
The back-and-forth in the Rockets’ 159-158 win was both exhilarating and exhausting. No lead was safe. Defense happened in random spurts. And in only the fourth game of the season, the matchup created the third-highest cumulative regulation score (317) in NBA history.
“My gosh,” Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni managed to say after catching his breath from 48 minutes of breakneck basketball, “everybody was just raising up.”
The statistics matched the offensive silliness. Houston made 53.4 percent of its shots. Washington surpassed that with an astounding 62.6 percent. Washington scored an are-you-kidding-me 43 points in the second quarter. Houston then pushed the boundaries of sanity with a 48-point offering in the fourth.
“I know they score, but I wouldn’t say I’m surprised by us either,” said Bradley Beal, who shot 14 for 20 from the field for 46 points and also shared the ball for eight assists. “We compete and we play hard. We have a lot of versatile guys in here, a lot of threats, a lot of three-point shooters, a lot of scorers, period. We’re going to compete. We’re not going to back down from anybody, regardless of who’s on the floor or what the score is.”
Harden and Beal combined to score 105 points. Hachimura showed confidence in his outside shot and posted a career-high 23 points. And in only his second game in six months, veteran guard Isaiah Thomas secured a double-double despite playing off the bench under a minutes restriction.
“I expect all of that. I expect more,” Thomas said after his 17-point, 10-assist performance. “I just try to do what the team needs me to do: make plays and score the basketball.”
Houston’s Russell Westbrook finished with a triple-double, a feat that might have been the fourth-most-interesting thing that happened Wednesday night. Even the ending was not nearly as controversial as it could have been.
With 2.4 seconds remaining, Harden decided the game at the foul line. He hit one out of his two attempts, after his only miss in a 17-for-18 display at the stripe, to give the Rockets a lasting lead. Harden got to the line by driving into the body of Wizards forward Isaac Bonga, who had his arms outstretched, and sold the call by flailing his head back. As official Kevin Scott whistled a shooting foul against Bonga, Hachimura could only fold his hands behind his head while Beal walked away in disgust.
Still, players did not complain about the soft call after the game. Their moods lifted while watching the Washington Nationals wrap up the World Series in Game 7; several players, staffers and reporters stood around the two television monitors inside the home locker room to watch the game’s conclusion. (In a strange coincidence, Washington’s baseball team was in Houston for Game 7, while Houston’s basketball team was in Washington for the Wizards’ home opener.)
When Juan Soto hit an RBI single in the eighth inning, the Wizards heard it before they saw it. Because the televisions were on a bit of a delay, the cheers from Capital One Arena, which showed the World Series on the video board for paying fans, flooded into the room. As Soto’s single finally flashed across the screen, Beal, wearing only a towel, triumphantly raised both arms.
During a pitching change, Beal broke away from the televisions long enough to share his thoughts on the Wizards’ own wild night.
“We know we showed a lot of resilience. We held our own,” Beal said. “A lot of things didn’t go our way, but other than that, if we play like this, we’ll win a lot of games.”