Tongue wagging, smile creeping upon his face, Bradley Beal dribbled away from Houston Rockets defenders, trying to melt away the clock before eventually drawing a foul. Beal already has made a game-winning jumper at Verizon Center this season, but on Saturday against the Rockets, the 19-year-old rookie got to experience the joy of a game-winning rebound.
Emeka Okafor made the go-ahead free throw and felt good when the second attempt left his hand, but the ever diligent Beal decided to give chase, just in case and snuck behind Rockets center Omer Asik to snag the carom. He then hit a free throw to secure a 105-103 home victory that may have served as the gutsiest of the season for the Washington Wizards, who had to overcome a 17-point first-half deficit and a seemingly unending three-point barrage.
“I got ’em,” Beal, who scored a team-high 21 points, said he told himself after reeling in the rebound with 5.2 seconds remaining. “He let me get the rebound. It just happened to fall in my hand. I was happy because I knew the game was over.”
The Wizards (17-37) claimed their second win in a row against a team that is currently in contention in the Western Conference playoff race, and improved to 11-4 against teams with winning records since Jan. 7 — when Beal got the positive vibes going on a once-completely-moribund season when he hit a jumper at the buzzer to defeat defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City. During that stretch, they have also defeated the Los Angeles Clippers, New York, Brooklyn and Denver twice, including a win on Friday night.
John Wall has returned during the run, and Wall had his second consecutive double-double with 12 points and 11 assists. Okafor added his 14th double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds as the Wizards withstood a three-point barrage and a 17-point first-half defict. Reserve forward Trevor Ariza came off the bench to contribute 18 points and helped slow down all-star guard James Harden, who led all scorers with 27 points.
Forward Chandler Parsons added 24 points for the Rockets (31-27), who made 19 three-pointers on a season-high 46 attempts. Houston had won its previous two games against Oklahoma City and Brooklyn, but teams with relative success have struggled of late when they come to Washington.
“We play to the level of our competition. Sometimes that helps us. Sometimes that hurts us,” reserve point guard A.J. Price said. “But we feel like we have a good team. We feel like our record is not indicative of the type of team we have here. Our record is pretty bad, but since we’ve had our full team, we’ve been playing pretty well.”
The Wizards had to play some catch-up against the Rockets, who routinely engage in shootouts, with an offense geared around swinging the ball, making the extra pass and setting up open three-pointers. When that doesn’t work, they let Harden go to work and attack the basket with long strides, herky-jerky dribbling and strong finishes at the basket.
According to multiple league sources, the Wizards could’ve obtained Harden from Oklahoma City in exchange for Beal and Chris Singleton last summer but elected to stand pat. Harden sized up Beal then buried a three-pointer to give the Rockets a 48-31 lead with 5 minutes 46 seconds left in the second quarter.
Entering the game, the most three-pointers that the Wizards had allowed this season was 13 on Nov. 26 during a 26-point home loss against San Antonio. The Rockets matched that total before the end of the first half — as they attempted an NBA record 29 by the break — and had made 14 one minute into the third quarter.
“I told them: ‘They’re going to make some threes, and we can’t get discouraged. Don’t get discouraged. And I know it was hard. Keep hanging in there,’ ” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “I’m a big believer, the longer the game goes, in the fourth quarter, the harder those shots become.”
Wittman tried to adjust to the Rockets in the second half, starting Singleton over Okafor at power forward to contend with Parsons, who had 19 in the first half. But the Wizards had more success when he went back to Okafor and Nene and forced the Rockets to defend them inside. “We went big and then just exploited them,” Okafor said.
The Rockets led, 66-52, when Harden made two free throws, but Beal got the Wizards started on a 19-5 run when he drove and made a reverse layup that went high above the rim before dropping. Ariza entered the game shortly thereafter and turned the game around with his hustle and relentless defense on Harden. He scored seven points during the run, stealing the ball from Asik to get a layup, and then finding Okafor for a layup that it at 71.
The game went back and forth until Wall gave the Wizards a 103-101 lead with two free throws. After Harden missed a layup, Wall dribbled down the clock, lost his dribble and recovered, but drew a shot clock violation. Harden then answered with a quick layup to tie the score at 103 with 21.9 seconds remaining. Wittman called timeout and told his team, “Whoever the little guy is on, that’s who we’re going to.” When Beal spotted Carlos Delfino on Okafor, he worked the ball inside and Okafor drew a foul on Asik. Okafor made the first and missed the second, “and I see Brad aka Superman come flying and grab it and save the day,” Okafor said.
“It was a big rebound,” Beal said. “I don’t know if people will remember it, but I definitely will. I was fortunate for being in the right place at the right time.”
Wittman wasn’t completely satisfied. “He needs to make the free throws. I ain’t letting him off there,” he said with a laugh.