The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a fast-paced shootout, the Wizards come up one play short against the Rockets

Bradley Beal finished with 46 points, but it was not enough in the Wizards’ 159-158 loss to Houston.
Bradley Beal finished with 46 points, but it was not enough in the Wizards’ 159-158 loss to Houston. (Nick Wass/AP)
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In the annals of Washington Wizards home openers, there had never been a D.C. debut quite like the one that happened Wednesday night.

Both teams lived by the three-pointer. The Wizards’ top rookie set a career high. The franchise cornerstone broke out for 46 points, and the opposing superstar casually scored 59. And though a player in the wrong color jersey drilled a late three-pointer to give the visitors the lead, Wizards fans standing throughout Capital One Arena erupted in cheers because a baseball score had flashed on the video board.

On a night the city will remember and in a matchup fit for a video game, the Houston Rockets defeated the Wizards, 159-158. James Harden broke a tie with 2.4 seconds remaining by drawing a foul and hitting the first of two free throws. The ending, as anti-climactic as it could have been in a game featuring nonstop scoring and a combined 43 made three-pointers, didn’t seem to dampen the mood inside the arena. Hundreds of fans from the announced sellout crowd of 20,476 remained in their seats to watch the conclusion of Game 7 of the World Series between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros.

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Before these hoops junkies turned their attention to baseball, however, they witnessed a wild introduction to a new season of Wizards basketball.

“Just how hard we played tonight, that’s going to be a given for us,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said when asked for his biggest takeaway from the game. “That’s not even a debate for us or a question. We know we can compete each and every night. That’s what we expect out of ourselves.”

The Wizards made light work of putting the ball in the hoop. Led by Beal’s 46 points on 14-for-20 efficiency, the Wizards shot 62.6 percent from the field. In his fourth career game, first-round draft pick Rui Hachimura added 23 points.

The Wizards missed out on their franchise high of 161 points, but the team easily eclipsed its high from last season (149 points against the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 22, 2018) and its offense looked almost Rocket-like.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, their defense also resembled their opponent’s.

Neither team possesses a defensive identity. The Rockets’ previous scores resemble a string of summertime temperatures in the Nevada desert. The Wizards are trying to establish a tougher mind-set on defense behind assistant coach Michael Longabardi, but they had still surrendered an average of 116 points in their two previous losses.

“Defensively, it’s always a work in progress, but I like their effort,” Coach Scott Brooks said before Wednesday’s game. “That’s the bottom line. We’re playing hard, and we’re playing with some enthusiasm. We’re going to make some mistakes and I’m going to be as patient as I possibly can be, but I understand if they play hard then they deserve that type of patience, and that’s what they’ve been doing.”

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No one should have predicted a slow, grind-it-out type game, but even for these two teams Wednesday night’s pace seemed excessive. In the first half, every player who stepped onto the court scored. Houston teed off for 27 three-point attempts before halftime — a number it would match in the second half — while the Wizards launched 13 on their way to firing off a total of 36. And even broken plays turned into madcap displays of beauty.

In under 3.3 seconds at the end of the half, the Wizards went the length of the court as center Thomas Bryant zipped a flat pass to a sprinting Beal. Though the ball was deflected, Beal still gathered the pass and scooped in a layup as Rockets guard Danuel House stumbled to the court in a shallow display of transition defense.

Before heading to the locker room with a 77-76 lead, Beal stared at the fallen Rocket for dramatic effect. Others, too, should have been fixated by House — he was a rare player who even attempted to play defense.

After halftime, the teams returned for another helping of fast-paced scoring. There was no trace of oppositional resistance. For any player struggling with his shot, this game presented an opportunity for a breakthrough. Beal, who had shot 23.3 percent from beyond the arc in the previous three games, made 3 of 4 deep shots in the Wizards’ 40-point third quarter and finished 7 for 12 from three-point range overall. Hachimura had entered the home opener 0 for 8 from three, but he calmly knocked down all three of his attempts against the Rockets, tossing a few more logs onto the growing fire of his rookie season in the process.

There are still reminders that Hachimura has played in the NBA for only a week. He showed up to Wednesday’s game in a personalized Nationals jersey over a skeleton body suit — punishment for skipping the team Halloween party at CJ Miles’s house Monday night. As a rookie, Hachimura had to wear the embarrassing off-court attire.

On the floor, however, he looked nothing like a hazing target. Double-digit scoring games have already become blasé. Against the Rockets, Hachimura needed only a quarter and a half to surpass 10 points. Still, Hachimura, like the rest of his teammates, ultimately walked off the court disappointed after the team’s third loss in four games. Still, a night of explosive offense gave the Wizards something upon which to build.

“All year I’ve been saying we’re going to surprise people,” forward Troy Brown Jr. said. “We’re young, but we’re trying to build an identity.”