WASHINGTON -- This team never ceases to surprise me.
After a first half where the Wizards looked completely powerless to stop the high-powered Houston Rockets offense, Washington dug in and rallied. When the Rockets pulled back ahead early in the fourth quarter, things looked bad.
But as they have so often recently, the Wizards dug in and somehow pulled it out. Washington's defense held a clinic on how to slow the spread pick and roll, and their offense scratched out enough good plays to come away with a 105-103 win. The Rockets are playing about as well as any team in the league right now. This is a hell of a win.
The game ultimately was decided in the final two and a half minutes after James Harden tied the score at 99 with the Rockets' 19th three-pointer of the game. After two Nene free throws, the Wizards shut down the Rockets' attempt to run pick and roll with Harden and Lin, leading to a missed shot. But Trevor Ariza traveled on the next play, and Chandler Parsons found Omer Asik wide open for a dunk on the next possession. No charge was called even though Parsons ran over Nene because Parsons had gotten rid of the ball.
Two Wall free throws gave the Wizards the lead, but they had to hold off one more Rockets possession. Wall threw up a wild shot in an isolation situation after a pick and roll with Nene broke down, giving the Rockets the ball with a chance to tie with 33.5 seconds left. Houston, predictably, gave the ball to Harden one-on-one against Ariza, and Trevor opened up Harden to go right to the rim with his strong hand to tie the score at 103 with 21.4 seconds left. Awful defense all around.
Everyone in the gym expected an isolation for Wall. Instead, Wittman had Wall run the clock down to 10 seconds, swing the ball to Beal on the wing and screen for Okafor to go in the post against the smaller Delfino. The play was beautifully executed and Okafor ended up drawing a foul on Asik. He hit the first and missed the second ... and BRADLEY BEAL CAME OUT OF NOWHERE TO GRAB THE OFFENSIVE REBOUND. He hit just one of two free throws, but the Rockets couldn't take it the length of the floor in 1.9 seconds and the Wizards won.
What a win.
It was especially great because the first half was pretty ugly. The Wizards got clubbed over the head by the Rockets' spread pick and roll all half. Houston took a whopping 28 threes in the first half, making 13. All those looks were appropriate because the Rockets kept catching the Wizards' weakside defenders too close to the basket. Against many teams, that's a good strategy. Against the Rockets, it kills you. Houston kept swinging the ball to the weakside and reaping the benefits of wide-open looks.
On the other end, the Wizards' offense was sporadic. They had some success when pushing the ball, but never really established their inside dominance. Both guards struggles -- Bradley Beal was 3-9 and got few good looks at the rim, whileJohn Wall was 2-6 with a couple poor possessions late that allowed Houston to extend to an 11-point halftime lead.
Tired of all the threes, Wittman decided to start Chris Singleton instead of Emeka Okafor in the second half. Things improved for a spell in the third, as the Wizards now had the kind of team speed needed to close out quicker on some Rockets shooters. The Wizards occasionally switched as well, further confusing the Rockets and forcing them to take more mid-range jumpers. A Trevor Ariza three with six and a half minutes left cut the Rockets' lead all the way down to five.
The Wizards kept coming thanks to some clever lineup deployment. Wittman rotated Nene and Okafor in there separately, then switched to have them in there together when the Rockets put in Donatas Motiejunas with Omer Asik. Wall hit a jumper to cut the lead to four, then Ariza stole a lazy Asik inbounds pass and scored on a tough finish to cut things down to two points with 4:01 remaining. Okafor hit a jump hook in the lane to tie the score with 3:40 remaining, and the two teams traded the lead from there.
The biggest change? The Rockets' shot distribution. After taking 14 threes in each of the first two quarters, the Rockets only attempted eight threes in the third. Whatever the Wizards did to force that shot distribution to change helped get the back in the game.
Unfortunately, the close of the third quarter did not go well. Houston scored the last seven points, including a three by Motiejunas and a buzzer-beater floater by Parsons after the Wizards turned it over. Still, the game was within reach heading into the fourth.
Houston kept it up early in the quarter, but the Wizards rallied with their big lineup. A difficult reverse layup from Ariza tied the score at 88 with just over seven minutes remaining. But just as quickly as the Wizards tied it, the Rockets surged ahead. Carlos Delfino answered Ariza's layup with an above-the-break three, and Motiejunas stroked a trey from the right corner to put Houston up six with 6:35 left.
That convinced Wittman to come back with Beal and Wall, and they paid dividends immediately. The Wizards went on a 7-0 run to take a one-point lead. During that stretch, the Wizards ran some sets that I hadn't seen them run all year. They ran HORNS, a set that puts two players at the elbow and two in the corners, but they put Beal on one elbow and had him run pick and roll inside the three-point line. It resulted in layups for both Okafor and Nene, and Beal slipped away after giving the ball up to get an open three on a third possession. Houston stopped the run with a Harden layup, but the game was on.