Wizards Undone by Old Friends in Houston | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Wizards Undone by Old Friends in Houston

Updated: January 3, 2017


For two quarters on Monday night it appeared that the Washington Wizards were going to continue their string of strong December play (a month they finished 10-5 overall) and triumph over the Houston Rockets, one of the elite teams in the Western Conference. Holding a 53-41 lead at halftime, the Wizards seemed poised to take advantage of a listless Rockets team perhaps suffering from a New Year’s hangover after a blowout win over the New York Knicks. Houston’s symptoms included turnovers, rebounding without much conviction, and suffering from an unusually quiet night from superstar James Harden, whose shot was a fraction off a night after pouring in 54 points against the Knickerbockers.

Bradley Beal evidently thought the same: “At the beginning of the game, they were dead — I felt like we were going to win the game by double digits just by the way we were flowing and they had no rhythm.”

Unfortunately the Wizards were ultimately undone by three factors: old friends, Houston’s superior bench, and a superstar who turned it on in the second half. Let’s take each factor in order:

#1) Old Friends.

There is something oddly bracing when one looks at the Houston Rockets and notes that two key contributors to the team used to ply their trade in Washington — Trevor Ariza and Nene. It was almost as startling (and frustrating) that these same two players were responsible for bookending plays in the third quarter that saw Houston erase its 12-point deficit and stretch it to an eventual lead of eight. Following a layup by Harden (and a subsequent 3-point miss by Beal), the ball found its way into the hands of Ariza, who spotted up and drained the first 3-pointer of the quarter. From there, the Rockets began dropping bombs with Ariza hitting another and Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson adding two each to the eventual gaudy stats. The Wizards, meanwhile, were unable to counterpunch as Wall, Beal and Porter could not replicate the same slick shooting. Changing tactics, when the Wizards attempted to drive toward the basket, they were sent away by their former Wizards compatriots — with Nene swatting away an Otto Porter gliding layup and Ariza firmly rebuking Marcus Thornton at the rim.

The #RisenAgain throwback performance by Nene was especially galling, as the ice-encased Brazilian finished off the third quarter rout by scoring on three consecutive possessions at the end (cutting sharply through the lane for a dunk, hitting a Randy Wittman approved fadeaway, and then converting a layup over a Washington defense stretched thin from chasing Gordon and Anderson). Nene seemed seconds away from flexing in front of the Wizards.

The loss of both players are two of the more defensible decisions of the Grunfeld era (Ariza due to price, Nene to age), but it is hard to take that in stride when one compares their output to the Wizards who were signed to replace them. Jason Smith was one of the few players who coach Scott Brooks unleashed from the bench and in nine minutes was largely ineffective. Meanwhile, Andrew Nicholson resides deep within Brooks’ doghouse and his play has yet to replicate Kevin Seraphin’s on a good night.

#2) It’s always the bench, stupid.

This could be summed up by relaying that the Rockets have Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson coming off the bench and the best the Wizards can muster is Marcus Thornton. But the fact that Houston’s bench is better than Washington’s isn’t a surprise — almost every bench in the league is superior to Washington. What Daryl Morey has done (after eons of tinkering) is develop a bench that falls in line with the system of play that his coach employs and one which he demands from his obsessive fixation with analytics. In part, it’s the bench that John Wall dreams of when he goes to bed at night — an entire pine bench full of people who can spot up behind the arc or make sharp cuts to the basket. That Harden is being considered a “better player” this year is not so much that he has dialed down his selfishness (he leads the league in touches), but that he is surrounded by a cast of teammates who are able to convert on the chances he creates for them, if and when he deigns to pass the ball.

#3) The most frustrating superstar.

Watching James Harden right now as a fan of the opposing team must be similar to the experience that other fans had watching Gilbert Arenas at the apex of his abilities — only Harden is much better. Harden recorded another triple double, but most of his damage on the scoring side was done from the free throw line as both Porter and Kelly Oubre were unable to contain the bearded superstar in the fourth quarter. Oubre looked especially perplexed as he was constantly turned inside-out by Harden’s bullrushes to the lane. The difference between Harden and Arenas, however, is that Harden, despite possessing the same allergic reaction to defense, never completely takes the rest of his team out his game. Harden has a more instinctive feel for when his shot is off, which is why he allowed Gordon and Anderson to take the lead in the third quarter before reasserting his presence in the fourth when the whistles of the zebras were more liable to be blown.

If there is a silver lining in this loss (and there rarely are), it is that the Wizards stood toe-to-toe with one of the league’s elite teams for two quarters before being undone by problems that have plagued them for multiple seasons: the inability to defend the 3-point shot and the overextended starters. Both are issues that can be addressed — one through the coaching of Scott Brooks and the other through the acquisition of better talent by Ernie Grunfeld. The latter question is at what cost do the Wizards mortgage the future to improve upon a team that is in the middle class of the Eastern Conference? One can understand the hesitation to allow Grunfeld to work any further “magic,” as that often comes at the loss of future draft picks, roster flexibility, and the sanity of Wizards fans. However, one has to also wonder how long the surgically repaired knees of Wall and the balky legs of Beal can hold up under the pressure of a team that is only 10 men deep and whether it’s worth continuing to run each player out on the court for 35-plus minutes a night when a salve is only one skillfully executed trade away.


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Sean Fagan
Reporter / Writer/Gadfly at TAI
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Sean has contributed to TAI since the the dawn of Jan Vesely and has been on the Wizards beat since 2008. His work has been featured on ESPN, Yahoo and SI.com. He still believes that Mike Miller never got a fair shot.